Question Period Live

Canada pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Now what?

Your daily dose of political theatre

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Maclean’s is your home for the daily political theatre that is question period. If you’ve never watched, check out our primer. Today, QP runs from 2:15 p.m. until just past 3. We livestream and liveblog all the action.

The must-see moment

When he pitched the House of Commons on another year of war in Iraq and, now, Syria, Prime Minister Stephen Harper carefully offered a nod to the broader effort to help the region’s most vulnerable people not with guns, but with a helping hand. “There is no either/or here between military action and humanitarian aid,” Harper said on March 24. “The situation desperately needs both, and Canada has vigorously been providing both, and so have a wide range of our international partners.” The PM named Canada as “one of the biggest providers of humanitarian assistance.” One got the sense that humanitarianism was a priority.

NDP MP Megan Leslie might disagree. She heard Harper’s speech that day and, today, had a question about helping people in that region so traumatized by civil war, sectarianism, a dictator and marauding barbarians. “Conservatives congratulate themselves for being two years late to fulfilling our promise to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. Measures that would save the lives of ISIL’s victims are now left on the backburner. Yet, the Prime Minister can’t move fast enough when it comes to launching Canada into a war with no exit strategy, and no end in sight,” Leslie preambled. “Can this minister explain why their motion doesn’t include any new money for refugees?”

Let’s read the government motion to keep the Canadian Armed Forces in the fight against Islamic State.

The motion to extend Canada's mission against Islamic State

There’s no disputing that not a single word of the motion addresses the humanitarian crisis. Leslie’s right. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, however, given that parliamentarians aren’t voting on foreign aid or refugee resettlement when they consider the government’s motion. They’re voting to accept or reject a military deployment. On its website, the government lists many bullet points worth of humanitarian assistance to Syria in the coming year. None required a motion in the House of Commons.

So the immigration minister, Chris Alexander, had a chance to show off all of the things he’s doing for Syrians.

“Two years ago, we announced our first objective for Syria. We have met and surpassed that objective, Mr. Speaker,” he said. File that away for a minute and keep listening to the minister. “We have announced that 10,000 refugees will be resettled in Canada this year, next year, and if necessary, 2017. That is the largest commitment to refugee resettlement from Syria by any country publicly yet made,” Alexander continued. File that one away, too. “It’s in addition to 21,000 Iraqis resettled. That’s on top of asylum seekers who’ve come here in their thousands.”

Let’s check up on those two files. Alexander mentioned the government’s “first objective for Syria,” announced in 2013. Here’s what then-immigration minister Jason Kenney pledged at the time.

In response to the UNHCR’s appeal for Canada to resettle a limited number of extremely vulnerable, urgent cases, Canada will resettle 200 extremely vulnerable Syrian refugees through the Government-Assisted Refugees Program in 2013 and 2014.

In addition, Canada has been working with Sponsorship Agreement Holders and has committed to accepting up to 1,100 Syrian refugees in 2014 through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. This number is over and above the current number of resettlement spaces available to Sponsorship Agreement Holders.

Last year, our own Rachel Browne checked into the government’s progress on Syrian refugee resettlement. As she told the story of three refugees who made it to Canada, Colleague Browne found the broader picture more complicated than the government would probably prefer.

The trio are the last of roughly 1,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada in 2014–which includes a woman who worked at the Canadian embassy in Damascus, that closed in 2012–despite the federal government’s promise that it would allow 1,300 by the end of the year, in large part due to the federal government’s red tape.

Global News also dug into the numbers last December.

Canada promised to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of this year, but so far only 457 have made it here — 294 who were assisted by the Canadian government and 163 who were privately sponsored.

The Government of Canada has technically met its commitment, having promised to settle 200 people, through the UN, while the remaining 1,100 were allotted to private groups. But those applications still have to be approved by the government — a process that can take years.

Browne spoke with refugee-resettlement groups who were frustrated with the feds.

[The Office for Refugees at the Archdiocese of Toronto] has resettled 114 Syrian refugees [in 2014], but Martin Mark, the group’s director, says they could have easily doubled that number if not for the government’s processing delay, which crippled his work for most of the year. Because Immigration didn’t release the quota for private sponsors until several months after his group expected it, Martin says he wasn’t able to start bringing Syrians in until much later than expected. “It’s devastating. We have so many people willing to sponsor refugees and do the resettlement work. It’s been very difficult to work like this,” he said.

Browne’s piece also addressed our second quibble, the minister’s claim that a Canadian offer to resettle 10,000 Syrians is the largest public commitment on the planet. The Germans and Swedes are both on the record as pledging more:

Canada admitted considerably fewer Syrian refugees than Germany, which has welcomed more than 6,000 and promised to take an additional 20,000, and Sweden, which has given permanent residency to 30,000 Syrians.

Alexander might find a technical justification for his claim that Canada’s public pledge is largest, but parliamentary bluster doesn’t matter much if refugees never make it to Canada.

The recap

The context

The Parliamentary Budget Office’s reports are not flashy. They’re full of dry text, riddled with small charts, and thick with qualifiers and caveats. Their godfather, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette, may be a quirky guy who moonlights as a beekeeper on a farm a world away from Parliament Hill—but he’s not flashy. You have to actually read Fréchette’s reports to understand them. They’re not tailor-made headline grabbers. But Fréchette’s team makes news, and they should.

Today, the PBO published a hard look at whether or not the Department of National Defence can sustain itself on the government’s budgeted spending. The shortest answer you can squeeze out of the report’s conclusions: “recent cuts to the defence budget point to an impending affordability gap beginning in this fiscal year.” Of course, it’s much more complicated than that.

The PBO undertook a detailed analysis of the defence department’s needs and activities. The number crunchers spat out an annual cost to run the department, and compared that to actual spending levels in recent years. The PBO found that after infamously deep Liberal cuts in the 1990s, politely titled “Underinvestment Period,” the Tory government launched an “Overinvestment Period,” which meant they were shovelling more money into the department than it required to fulfill its mission.

You can already see the question period talking point on the government side: “If the opposition actually reads the report, they’d see that it was only a Conservative government that spent the money after Liberals gutted the military and gave rise to a Decade of Darkness.”

But the news for the government is projected to be quite bad in the wake of three years of sustained budget cuts.

Even if the funds removed in recent budgets are re-allocated to future years, trend spending on defence needs to grow significantly from its base of 1.9 per cent in order to match the 2.5 per cent growth in the cost of maintaining the existing force structure over the next 10 years.

Put differently: the defence department’s annual budgetary requirement will grow by 2.5 per cent a year. Actual spending has grown by only an average of 1.9 per cent per year, in real terms, since 1995. That 0.6 per cent gap eventually adds up to billions of dollars. The government will repeat that it’s investing what’s required to satisfy the country’s military needs, a claim the the PBO accepts as fact until 2014. As for the next decade: Fréchette’s exhaustively objective projections paint a statistically dark picture.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.