Last Thursday, the Young Liberals Club at UTM hosted several members of parliament representing the Liberal Party of Canada in a round-table Q&A session on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. MP Omar Alghabra of Mississauga Centre, MP Raj Grewal of Brampton East, and MP Gagan Sikand of Mississauga-Streetsville took part in the hour-long discussion.
“The refugee crisis is an important issue of discussion because it directly affects Canadian citizens and our economy. Thus, it’s important to be aware of and understand how these changes affect us as citizens,” said the Young Liberals Club president, Lilian Atari, to The Medium.
“So our club felt the need to have this event, because the Liberal Party made a commitment to Canadians and refugees, and we saw MPs as primary sources of information.”
Varun Gupta, a third-year political science student, was among the group of students attending the Q&A session in Spigel Hall. His question to the panel inquired as to whether or not the Canadian government’s threshold for refugees was reduced as a result of the Syrian initiative of accepting refugees into the country.
Alghabra explained that Canada’s immigration system did not discriminate on any basis, but rather made accommodations for the Syrian crisis on the basis of its magnitude.
“Regardless of what country, religion, sex, the immigration process is uniform. The Syrian initiative is unique, given that it is the worst modern refugee crisis in the world. Our government made a political decision to allocate an additional number on top of the average refugee allocations we have, but it did not take away our ability to resettle other types of protected individuals.”
He went on to clarify the role of the Canadian government in supporting and accommodating large influxes of newcomers during their transition to North American life.
“There are really two types of newcomers in the Syrian initiative—there are government-sponsored and private-sponsored refugees. Providing housing was an important element for our government-funded refugees,” said Alghabra.
“At the beginning, many were actually staying in hotels while we arranged individual housing accommodations. The private-sponsored refugees have families, churches, mosques, and other charitable organizations, which are responsible for providing accommodations for up to one year.”
Sikand quickly added, however, that the government’s foresight in regards to resettlement fell short on several occasions. “One hiccup in our accommodation was that we didn’t take into account the sizes of some families arriving to Canada. What we originally allotted in many cases had to be expanded very quickly.”
Following a lengthy discussion, Atari directed the forum to the subject matter of Aboriginal rights.
“With the welcoming of refugees last year, there were concerns that Indigenous people, who already feel like refugees in their homeland, would be neglected,” she said. “The government has spent millions of dollars on refugees who will get first-class citizenship, while there are First Nations living in third-world conditions. What is the government intending to do to resolve this?”
Alghabra and Grewal took the floor to respond.
“Our government is focused on reconciling with our Indigenous people,” responded Alghabra. “Last year’s budget had the largest number of dollars—eight billion—dedicated to dealing with the challenges facing Indigenous communities. Money alone is certainly not the answer […], and the problem will not be resolved in one year. Our government is committed and is applying a whole-of-government approach. It starts with housing, access to clean water, and accessibility to mental health resources.”
“It’s a big problem and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to repairing this relationship,” continued Grewal.
“Eight billion is a historic investment […]. I don’t think it’s ever been that high. I think one of the first priorities is to end the boil water advisories in Indigenous communities around the country. If you’re living in the GTA, you can’t imagine that some Canadians don’t have access to clean water.
“The missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry has also been launched, and there’s a round of consultations with First Nations around the country to identify other problems. There’s certainly a growing mental health aspect to all these issues as well, particularly teen suicides. Education is a huge answer to some of these problems, and this is a federal responsibility for our First Nations.”
The Liberal government has recently been chided by Indigenous leaders and political opposition for “racial discrimination” that forces First Nations children on reserves to be taken from their families and be placed into foster care. When the issue was brought up at the round-table on two separate occasions, the MPs addressed the claims.
“I think it’s a little unfair to associate Aboriginals with refugees,” suggested Sikand, who’s a former member of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs. “The situation is really like comparing apples and oranges.”
In regards to providing support to the Canadian government’s ongoing refugee efforts, the MPs recommended that brief research in one’s local resettlement initiatives was the most effective method to make a difference.
“The government itself doesn’t handle resettlement; we subcontract that work to organizations. So the best way to help is to find out which organizations are involved in your area and get in touch with them. You can find out who they are through your local MP’s office,” said Alghabra. In concluding the round-table discussions, Sikand touched on the importance of Canadians continuing to lead by example. He cited “openness” as one of many “Canadian values.”
“Our country has an amazing record of opening its doors to people who are displaced. The Irish famine, the Tamils from Sri Lanka, the 70,000 Vietnamese boat people—the UN is looking at our country as a model.”
“The goal of the event was to ensure that this significant topic was being addressed. There are more people displaced in the world today than ever before,” said Atari to The Medium. “By discussing the global refugee crisis, we hope to inspire in the students a sense of responsibility, to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and to empower them to take action.”
As of January 29, the incumbent Canadian government has resettled some 40,081 displaced individuals from Syria since conflict began six years ago. Over half of those resettled have been government-assisted, with the remainder receiving sponsorship from private entities.