OTTAWA – Gov. Gen. David Johnston found himself talking about Canada’s system of private sponsorship for refugees during a trip to Sweden this week, arriving just as the Scandinavian country found itself in the crosshairs of the new American president over immigration.
Johnston said the idea of mobilizing private groups to sponsor refugees and help them out financially when they first arrive is a foreign concept to many countries, including Sweden. He said Swedish officials have shown a keen interest in Canada’s private system as a way to overcome immigration and integration challenges.
As of January, more than one-third of the Syrian refugees recently brought to Canada came through the private sponsorship program.
In Sweden, the government has enacted stricter border controls along with other measures to curb the number of asylum-seeking refugees, a figure that spiked to about 162,000 in 2015.
Speaking by phone on Wednesday from Malmo – a city at the heart of the Swedish immigration debate – Johnston said some Swedes feel an uneasiness with the volume of newcomers. But that thought is often followed with an acknowledgment that the country has to accept them because they are desperate and have no other alternative.
“And that’s really the Swedish way. They do everything they can. It’s an overwhelming challenge,” Johnston said.
Sweden found itself on the defensive this week after U.S. President Donald Trump cited immigration and refugee problems there to support his hard line approach to the issue, sparking debate about the veracity of Trump’s comments and what incidents could be attributed to immigrants in Sweden.
On Monday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven acknowledged his country faces issues, but suggested Trump exaggerated the scope of the problem. Lofven made the comments during a joint news conference with Johnston.
“We have opposition to it (immigration and refugees) in our country,” Johnston said.
“But by and large, I think the forces that say, ‘this has been good for Canada and will be good and this is the way of playing our role as a humanitarian institution of the world is a good thing to do,’ will prevail.”
Johnston is leading a delegation this week to Sweden that includes Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and former National Hockey League player Daniel Alfredsson.
The theme of Johnston’s trip is the promotion of “innovative, inclusive and sustainable societies,” making it broader than economics, although that’s part of it, he said. So while there is talk about the new free trade agreement with the European Union, there is also talk about investments in research and development, and scientific collaboration.
Sweden devotes 3.1 per cent of its gross domestic product to research and development of new technologies, almost double the 1.6 per cent of GDP Canada spends in the same area, Johnston said.
“That’s a pretty impressive statement of how this nation has said if you’re going to deal with these forces of being closed, of putting up barriers, of not wanting to diversify your trade, you better be putting a lot of emphasis on innovation, basic education of your people, very good post-secondary institutions and a whole lot of collaborative research.”