Too much make-believe in Syrian program: former top bureaucrat

Gerry Van Kessel says he’s frustrated by the game he feels the Liberals are playing by changing targets for Syrian refugee program

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16 month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, second right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian at Pearson International airport in Toronto on Friday, December 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16 month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, second right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian at Pearson International airport in Toronto on Friday, December 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

OTTAWA – As he watches his former colleagues go all out to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees by the end of this year, the civil servant who helped run Canada’s last major refugee resettlement program says he’s concerned that politics is getting in the way of policy.

Gerry Van Kessel says he’s frustrated by the game he feels the Liberal government is playing by constantly affixing and changing targets for their Syrian refugee program.

“There is an element of make-believe in all this that keeps the focus on the make-believe and not the substance,” he said in an interview.

“And to what purpose? That’s the thing — they are doing something that the public approves of. And yet the public focus is not going to be on what they are doing but on the manipulation around it.”

Van Kessel was the director general, refugees, for the immigration department when the Canadian government evacuated 5,000 Kosovars and fast-tracked the resettlement of more than 2,000 others over a period of several months in 1999.

Van Kessel said as soon as he, and other former immigration officials, saw the government’s Syrian plan, they knew bringing over more than three times that number of people in just four months couldn’t be done.

What’s happened since has been nothing but politics, he said.

“It became a political issue for them — nervousness around the fact that they are seeing they are not meeting their promise so they keep pretending they are meeting their promise,” he said.

In March, the Liberals had called for 25,000 Syrians to be brought to Canada. During the election campaign when refugee policy became an unexpected issue, they pledged that’s what they would do if elected — “immediately” their platform said and they would work with private sponsors to do even more.

The “immediately” was later defined as the end of the year. But since the Liberals have been sworn into power on Nov. 4, things keep changing.

First, the idea that it would be 25,000 government-assisted refugees by year-end was clarified to mean it would be a mix of those and privately-sponsored refugees, though the Liberals would eventually bring over the full 25,000 themselves, they said.

Then, the target dates were changed — 10,000 privately-sponsored refugees would be admitted to Canada by the end of this year, a further 15,000 government-assisted refugees would arrive by the end of February, and the remaining government-assisted refugees would come by the end of 2016.

But all 25,000 would be identified by year end.

Then, both the numbers and the date shifted again — the immigration minister said last week that there’s no guarantee 10,000 Syrians will be in Canada by the end of this week, though he said the full 25,000 should still arrive by the end of February.

But identifying all 25,000 by year end was replaced with identifying 10,000 by year-end.

According to the immigration department, as of Dec. 26, 2,413 had arrived. A further 1,452 were scheduled to arrive on flights on Dec. 27 and Dec. 28. How many will arrive in the final three days of the year is unclear. Nine government flights currently appear on the schedule.

Also as of Dec. 26, a total of 7,218 — including those who have arrived — have been approved to come to Canada.

A variety of reasons have been given for the changing terms, ranging from public pressure to take more time to ensure security concerns are addressed to weather forcing the delays of flights.

Government officials and the responsible ministers have held regular briefings with the press and refugee service providers to keep them abreast of the program changes but Van Kessel says that’s all just political “mumbling.”

There are two potential fallouts from affixing that much political pressure to get the job done: that bureaucrats feel the need to take shortcuts to make it happen and that other programs suffer as a result, he said.

For the former, it may not be known ever whether any corners were cut to get that many refugees to Canada in keeping with the deadline, Van Kessel acknowledged. And when it comes to other programs, McCallum has said that refugee processing from other parts of the world isn’t being held back.

But Van Kessel says given the number of civil servants deployed to work on the Syrian program, it’s impossible think other programs aren’t suffering.

He said he thinks it’s important that the Liberals be kept accountable for the deadlines and targets they’ve set, but just wishes they had taken a simpler path in the first place — acknowledge the original promise wasn’t going to work and then just get to work doing what they could, while providing updates along the way.

“The resettlement program is a damn good program,” he said. “And I don’t like this playing politics all the time with it,” he said.


Too much make-believe in Syrian program: former top bureaucrat

  1. Somewhat illuminating on the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats.

  2. Canada has welcomed many to its shores and has become a multi- cultural nation. But, any non-political thinking individual realized that many of the Liberal campaign promises could not be met nor were they well thought out. In particular – the logistics of the refugee program by bringing in so many people within that promised short time frame. Importantly and in particular, the requirements of security checks. Then, there is the matter of relocation, housing, medical, and financial maintenance all required for a designated term. Kudos must be given to those who were designated to handle this nightmare scenario.

  3. Dealing with whistle-blowers is part of being the party in power so Mr. Trudeau best be prepared to deal with it in the House and with the public. It will be interesting whether the Liberals try to answer the charges or discredit the person.
    It does sound like the honeymoon may be coming to an end. Whether the press will still share the same bed, or begin to be a little more subjective, will remain to be seen.

    • The Liberals Government is well protected from the fallouts from issues like these by the unions (more specifically the Journalists’ unions). The unions’ kowtowing to the Government enthroned by them at much expense to themselves is a given. There is no election to be contested in the near term. And even in the longer term, the Goebbelsian propaganda by the journalists’ union will take of everything in short order. There is nothing to worry. Look at some of the recent strange happenings and you will realize why.
      The Government is going pell-mell with the Syrian Immigration issue disregarding all budgetary constraints. Ministries with other different objectives have been coopted into this adventure and it will affect their normal functioning drastically. Yet no one is ready to admit it. Same with straining the resources of the Defense Ministry in immigration related issues without so much as reading a statement of intent in the House of Parliament. When it comes to international cooperation in national security issues, the defense Ministry has no choice but to play second fiddle only. It is hard to get the respect of our allies in this manner. Has any from the news media ever published one single dissenting analysis on the issue? No!
      Even though during the elections, the Liberal Party has enjoyed much fun pointing out the disadvantages experienced by native population vis-à-vis the rest of Canada in education, health, employment, administration of justice and other assorted social issues, this propaganda actually turned out to be just an election stunt. Early this month, the Finance minister imposed a cut on the amounts to be transferred to the Governments of NWT, Yukon, and Nunavut. The total cut amounts to $107 million. These Governments are puny entities and every dollar cut from their budget is a big deal for them. But, does anyone care? No!
      Compare this sum to the unsolicited largesse awarded to the CBC (unions). At a time when the budget itself has not been presented in the House, the Government has released without much fanfare $150 million to the CBC. (Read here “unions representing the CBC journalists”). Just as it happens in auto industry, this generous dishing out to union members in one institution will be used as a bargaining chip with other similar but smaller institutions. In short, this is a government of the unions run foe their benefit and it doesn’t care about the general health of the economy. As far as they are concerned, this is an investment in its own future and they cannot be overly worried about such passing weather phenomena.
      To sum up it all, whistle-blowers or not, the Government simply doesn’t care.

  4. The whole Trudeau “thing” is make believe. Justin Trudeau’s election is solely a product of the hype produced by a Canadian media that has wilfully suspended their disbelief in the colossal failure that was Trudeau 1, so as to bring back those glory days with Trudeau 2.
    Trudeau 1 heaped debt and division upon the nation. But, he had “charisma”, and the nation was glorious when he was in power. The days were sunnier, the winters were brighter, our hair was fuller, and our d___s were harder. There was so much promise! He changed the nation! (Yeah, like my kids changed clean diapers into dirty ones.) It was all so grand!
    Then came the darkness, of course. Those dank, dirty, and un-charismatic Conservatives. Those were that dark years, when Pete Mansbridge and Bob Fife wept for the glory days of the Trudeau’s. So much charisma (so little brains!), so sad that it was not in Ottawa where it belonged.
    And along came a funeral, and Justin! And a speech! O what a speech it was! (Have you listened to said speech? Actually listened? Makes Barack Obama seem bright.) And the Canadian media had their shiny pony, and vast forests were felled, and the windmills spun over time generating the power that ran the presses that signalled the glory of all that was Justin!
    Oy friggin’ vey! It’s all make beleive, kids. Ya better get used to it. The combined intellect of the Libranos is like the Platte River. A mile wide and an inch deep, too thin to plow and too thick to drink.

    • Yerp. Them uneducated, science-rejecting, creationist, car salesmen Cons might not have had charisma, but they sure wus smart when they heaped debt and division on the country.

      • Crap Tresux, even you knew winter happened in Canada. You should have advised JT before he made big promises that he couldn’t keep in terms of importing refugees or did you actually believe Leonardo diCaprio when he said winter did come here anymore?

  5. What’s with this $%^&*, MacLeans? Bring back the pics of Foreign Affairs staff swooning over dear Leader and booing the journalist asking him hard questions.

  6. A refreshing change, actually.

    The old way: make a promise and then, oh well, it looks like it’s going to be a bit harder than we thought, but we’ll still get it done, eventually. February becomes June, 2016 becomes 2017, 2018, eventually, maybe, everyone forgot, so slash the budget and spend it on a new promise… Same old, same old.

    But, if you want something done in a government bureaucracy, in a reasonable time, maybe a better way is to say “yeah, I said now and I mean it.” Keep saying that, and if it turns out impossible, well, now becomes February, or maybe March. Beats 2017, doesn’t it?

    Either way, somebody’s going to complain. Might as well get it done.

    There’s a veritable army of bureaucrats busting there proverbial butts trying to get this done as quickly as possible. This is a problem? I say, cheer them on! This will likely be the highlight of many a bureaucrat’s career, the thing they remember forever. “Pffttt, only 5000 from Kosovo… we did 25000 Syrians in half the time.” GO TEAM GO!

    Yes, we take in way more than this as immigrants and refugees with regular oh-hum “year or so on the waiting list” bureaucratic efficiency. Yes, fast-tracking 25000 from Syria is basically a political stunt. But, oh what a stunt. News all over the world is full of articles basically saying “look at what Canada is doing, what’s wrong with us?” This is a problem? As far as political stunts go, this is an international gold-medal stunt.

    There are probably a 1000 times more people on this planet that know we’re bringing in 25000 Syrians than know we have 6 jets bombing ISIS. That is the definition of “soft power.”


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