OTTAWA – There will be no new Middle East aid packages unveiled to accompany the proposed expansion of Canada’s military mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, government officials said Wednesday.
Instead, Defence Minister Jason Kenney pointed to some $67.4 million already earmarked for relief efforts in Iraq, plus several hundred million more spent in Syria, as proof of Canada’s humanitarian and development commitment.
“We really are a leader,” Kenney said. “We’d like to see other countries step up to our level.”
But aid workers and members of religious minority communities say it’s Canada that could be leading a more co-ordinated response to a crisis that’s left at least 200,000 dead in Syria alone and displaced millions more across in the region.
“We need to see a vision for the future because we don’t see that,” said Father Niaz Toma of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Canada, who was among those standing behind Kenney at Wednesday’s news conference.
Chaldeans in Iraq have been among the religious minorities targeted by Islamic State militants. When ISIL overtook the Iraqi town of Mosul, they ordered adherents to the faith to convert to Islam or face death, prompting a mass exodus of Christians.
The conflict is not going away and people need to start thinking beyond emergency relief, Toma said.
“There are people who are in the camps now who have food, who have clothes,” he said. “But what’s next? No life.”
Canada is currently part of five different international working groups studying responses to the threat posed by ISIL. Four of them seek to go beyond the U.S.-led bombing campaign in which the federal government now intends to continue to participate for 12 more months.
Avenues being pursued include how to cut off ISIL’s financing, counter their extremist religious messaging and stop the flow of foreign fighters into their ranks.
Overall, Canada has allocated more than $100 million towards the Iraq crisis, according to a tabulation of announcements on the Foreign Affairs website.
Last fall, Canada announced $5 million to stop foreign fighters from reaching Syria and Iraq, but only $1.1 million has been spent so far, according to the Foreign Affairs department. The UN received $600,000 to strengthen legal regimes in the region to be able to respond to the phenomenon and $500,000 was directed towards promoting counter-narratives to violent extremism.
A further $5 million was allocated to deal with the issue of sexual violence. Amnesty International has reported that many women from the Yazidi sect have been held as sex slaves, some as young as 10 years old.
Foreign Affairs says it is still developing projects to use those funds and won’t say which groups it is working with on the ground for the security and safety of the organizations.
While Canada’s humanitarian support is welcome in the region, what’s happening to religious minorities is a security crisis, said Renya Benjamen, a member of the Assyrian community in Canada, who also joined Kenney.
Organizations representing Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria are currently calling on the United Nations to create safe zones in the region where religious minorities could flee persecution. and a vote is set for next week.
“Canada could support it,” said Benjamen, adding she’s received no assurances Canada will do so.
Canada could also continue to act as a conscientious voice at the table with the U.S.-led military coalition, Jane Pearce, the head of the UN World Food Program operation in Iraq, said in a recent interview.
“What they can do is keep the humanitarian situation high on the agenda at the political talks,” Pearce said.
“So when they are talking politics, they are also saying there are humanitarian consequences for decisions that are taken at the political level. That’s really one of the big things Canada can do.”
— With files from Murray Brewster
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© The Canadian Press, 2015