Last night’s episode of Power & Politics featured a sometimes heated exchange between Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and host Rosemary Barton over Canada’s resettling of Syrian refugees, and the emergence of distressing images of a young Syrian boy who drowned in his family’s attempt to reach Greece.
Read on for a full transcript of their exchange:
Barton: Joining me now, John McCallum, a Liberal candidate joining us by Skype tonight, Conservative candidate Chris Alexander, who’s also the minister, and here in studio Paul Dewar, the Ontario NDP candidate, good to see you all. And Chris Alexander, I’m going to start with you if that’s okay. At this stage, do you think, given what we’ve seen on the news that that’s one graphic picture but we’ve seen many pictures of people stuck in train stations in a very desperate situation. Do you believe that Canada is doing enough to help Syrian refugees?
Alexander: Well I think Canada remains a model of humanitarian action. We are one of the top donors to the much larger numbers of refugees in the region, both in the crises in Iraq and in Syria, and to all the UN agencies and other agencies that are responding to these millions of displaced people and refugees. We also are the most generous country to refugees in the world, we take 1 in 10 resettled refugees annually and our numbers for Syria and Iraq are going up dramatically as a response to that. The Prime Minister made a response to that during the campaign to those efforts. But we also, Rosemary, have to accept that no one will be able to resettle all these refugees. The ones that have come through human smuggling, through cross borders, bribing officials, paying for train tickets and airline tickets, they are the lucky ones. There are millions more caught in the crossfire in these countries, and they are victims of jihadist terrorism that needs to be stopped in Syria and in Iraq. We stood against it in Afghanistan, prevented the Taliban from coming back to power there, we need to do the same and not stand in the sidelines militarily in Syria and Iraq, as the opposition…
Barton: Okay, but, but, but that, that’s not what I’m suggesting, I’m asking what to do about refugees, and I take your point that you believe Canada’s doing enough and that we can’t help all of them, but [Alexander tries to interject] surely there can be, surely there can be more. Surely you can’t look at those pictures and say that’s that, we’ve done enough.
Alexander: No, that’s why Prime Minister Harper, at the beginning of this campaign, added a commitment of 10,000 more Syrian refugees to be resettled to this country. I announced 10,000 to be resettled—
Barton: Most of them are private sponsored though, privately sponsored, those aren’t government-sponsored refugees.
Alexander: Absolutely not, government-assisted refugees remain a huge component. We take as much private sponsorship as we can, but we use government assistance for those who are most vulnerable and we will continue to do that. [Barton tries to interject] But Rosemary my answer was about refugees. We will have a growing refugee crisis in that region and in Europe as long as jihadi terrorism goes unaddressed in Iraq and Syria…
Barton: I take your point, and just a quick fact check, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees in 2013, government-assisted refugees totaled 5,000, and there were 6,000 privately sponsored refugees, compared to in [the year] 2000, for instance, where the numbers were vastly different: [then it was] 10,000 government-sponsored refugees versus 2,900 privately sponsored refugees, so things have obviously changed over your time in government. Paul Dewar, what do you think that the gov—
Alexander: Let me add, Rosemary, that if you look at private sponsorship of refugees and refugee flows since 1979, Conservative governments have on average taken 20,000 refugees per year, Liberal governments 10 [thousand].
McCallum: Well, not since—
Barton: Okay, Paul Dewar—[Alexander tries to interject]
Dewar: Well Chris, I’m sorry but Chris is completely wrong in terms of what the government’s approach has been. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming to actually admit 1,300 refugees, that was a task free from the government’s side because they couldn’t tell us, if you remember, asking how many of those refugees had actually come. At the same time, Germany, Sweden, other countries were taking in tens of thousands, so look—
Barton: In part because they’re closer to be fair.
Dewar: Closer, I know, but they had a policy and they had a commitment. You know, Chris mentions 1979. I remember it well. My mother was the mayor of Ottawa, and she opened the doors of Ottawa to 4,000 refugees at the time, and the government changed its number to 60,000. It was a proud day for our country. What the hell are we doing now? We have been asked by the UNHCR a year ago spring to bring in 10,000 refugees, so when we hear the government say, oh we’re going to admit 10,000, it’s a year or two late from when we were asked [Alexander tries to interject]. Chris, I haven’t interrupted you, so please, thank you. [Alexander tries to interject]
Barton: Just a minute, Mr. Alexander, I’ll let you respond, I promise.
Dewar: We should have been doing 5,000 that year, as the NDP asked that year, and then another 5,000, and finally, we’ve said to do that, and then, those should be government ones, and then on top of that private sponsorships.
Barton: Okay, Mr. Alexander, quick response, and I want Mr. McCallum to get in there.
Alexander: First of all, the numbers today are significant.
Dewar: What are they? What are they?
Barton: Okay, let him finish, go ahead, Mr. Alexander
Alexander: Our resettlement program, it went up to 50,000 and even beyond.
Dewar: No, you’re not answering the question.
Alexander: Today, we have over 20,000 refugees from Iraq.
Dewar: It’s not, we’re talking Syria, talking Syria today.
Barton: Okay, okay, not everyone can hear. Mr. Alexander, finish your thought.
Dewar: Syria, we’re talking about Syria today, Chris. That child was from Syria.
Barton: Okay, Mr. McCallum, what do you think? Let me bring in Mr. McCallum.
Alexander: This is the sad thing about the NDP. They cannot distinguish between—
Dewar: We can distinguish between Iraq and Syria, Chris.
Barton: Gentlemen, gentlemen, no one can hear anybody. Mr. Alexander, I’m going to let Mr. McCallum, your turn.
McCallum: If you would let me say something. This is obviously a crisis. Justin Trudeau has commited and repeated today [to] 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees, but, and I must say Canada under the decades under both Progressive Conservative governments like Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, and Liberal, have always been generous to refugees whether it was Hungary, or Vietnamese boat people, or Uganda. But Chris Alexander and this government [are] a total disgrace to that long-standing tradition. I remember not so many months ago, he hid from media, he hung up on As It Happens because he did not want to admit the pathetic numbers of refugees that have been admitted [Barton tries to interject]. He has denied basic health care to applicants even though a judge has said it’s cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. So nobody believes a word that Chris Alexander says about refugees.
Barton: Okay, so let’s let Mr. Alexander answer here. How many refugees, Syrian refugees, has the government brought in to date? Syrian refugees that were overseas, not already here.
Alexander: Approximately 2,500. The numbers grow quickly through private sponsorship and government assistance. We also have brought in over 20,000 Iraqi refugees, when neither the opposition nor others were talking about that crisis since 2009. We have a total commitment, half of it delivered, of about 50,000 refugees to be resettled from Syria and Iraq, and obviously the main effort is on Syria right now—
Barton: And when will that happen, Mr. Alexander? What is the timeline on that commitment?
Alexander: Well for the 10,000 that I announced, it was this year, next year, ending in 2017. For the 10,000 the Prime Minister announced, it was over four years, so it’s in the coming years, and these resettlement populations will dominate our resettlement populations, as they should, given the scale of this crisis—
Barton: Fair to say, though, that most of these settlements are private. Why is the government not doing a matching program?
Alexander: Well, that is not fair to say.
Barton: It’s not fair to say?
Alexander: I’m not sure why you keep saying that.
Barton: Because it’s a fact.
Alexander: No, it’s not a fact. We don’t have a policy of accepting a certain number of private sponsorships and having another number for government—
Barton: No, but 60 per cent are falling to private sponsorships, are they not?
Alexander: As we did with the Vietnamese boat people, we take as many through private sponsorships as we can, because then taxpayer dollars go further. But what is conspicuous by its absence in Mr. Dewar’s comment, as it always is from Justin Trudeau and Liberals, is any mention of the source of the problem. The Vietnamese came because Saigon fell, and Vietnam fell under Communist rule. The Iraqis and Syrians are leaving their countries because jihadist terrorism is at a high-water mark in the Middle East and in the world [Dewar and Barton try to interject]. And we will not help the tens of millions of people affected unless we take military action in those areas with our allies, NATO, Turks, NATO allies, under the fellowship of President Obama, the two opposition parties in this election are totally offside with Canadians and with the international community by opposing this mission.
Barton: Okay, Mr. Dewar first and then Mr. McCallum.
Dewar: Well, you know, I just met with Nigel Fisher this afternoon. Nigel Fisher, the government’s asked him in for advice on how to deal with the issue. And he was Ban Ki-Moon’s person on humanitarian crisis in Syria. I just met with him. He showed me the German plan, the 10-point plan, for how to deal with the crisis, very comprehensive. And what does it say? It says you should bring in refugees, you should settle them, you should match people up with their skills, make sure they have the proper settlements, do it in an organized way. It’s exactly what we should be doing, it’s exactly what the government should do. [Barton tries to interject] And here’s what’s missing—
Barton: So answer this, what would the NDP concretely do, how many more people would you do it [for], and how would you pay for it? Because we’re talking about a lot of money.
Dewar: So, we would have done what we were asked by the UNHCR more than a year ago and we would have had 5,000 already in Canada now and another 5,000 in the next year, with an opening to as many private sponsorships as we’re able to get. So it’s 10,000 by government as we were asked to do by the UNHCR and then as many as we could do private.
McCallum: Well the NDP has a $28 billion fiscal hole, so they might have trouble paying for anything, but that’s a different topic.
Dewar: Yeah, right there John.
Barton: Yeah, way to, way to get it in there, though.
Dewar: That was so smooth, John, wow.
McCallum: 25,000 government-assisted refugees—we believe Canadians will support that.
Barton: So Mr. McCallum, just to be clear, that is not privately sponsored. Privately sponsored refugees would be on top of that number?
McCallum: Exactly, we want as many as possible privately sponsored. The Conservatives have focused on privately sponsored, and they’ve shunned the church groups that have approached them, they’ve treated them with disrespect. I’ve heard that from religious groups across the map. They do not treat them with respect, which is why Chris Alexander keeps trying to change the subject to military. We are serious about this. Canadians are serious about this. It is unacceptable to discriminate the refugees by religion, which is another thing that the Conservatives do. I think both Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark would be utterly ashamed of the total departure from long-standing traditions and Canadian practices led by this Conservative government.
Barton: Okay, I’ll let Mr. Alexander respond to that. Mr. Alexander, respond to that, but also, is there anything that you could do immediately to help? A cash infusion, some sort of an emergency measure, is there anything you could do right now?
Alexander: Well we have been, we have seen this crisis coming for years, we are among, at the forefront of donors to the UNHCR and other agencies in the region—
McCallum: Oh, rubbish.
Alexander: The cash will continue to flow because it’s the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. Church groups are integral to our efforts. We are focusing, as the Liberal party has never done, on vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities. They are among those persecuted the most, losing their lives the most, and we will continue to harness the best that Canada has to offer.
Barton: Okay, but, in the immediate, seeing the crisis right now and the photos people are seeing right now, is there anything extra Canada can do over the next week, or two weeks, or month, no?
Alexander: Well, Rosemary, these numbers have been growing for years. There are seven million people outside of Iraq and Syria, half of the Syrian population inside the country is displaced. That has been the case for over a year and a half. We are continuing to act, to be at the forefront of humanitarian response—
Barton: But Mr. Alexander, you’re actually countering your own point. If that is true, if this has been going on for years, why did the government not act faster now?
Alexander: I’m actually interested in why this is the first Power and Politics panel we’ve ever had of this, and—
Dewar: No it isn’t.
Barton: Well, Mr. Alexander, that’s completely false, and I can send you links to the previous shows that we’ve discussed this. We’re discussing it during an election campaign because there’s a crisis situation going on in Europe right now [Alexander tries to interject]. But if you’d like me to send you those, I can, because you’ve been on the show previously and discussed it.
Alexander: I’ve never been on the show in a panel discussion on these issues—
Barton: No because you weren’t allowed to do panel as a minister, that’s why you’re here now. [Alexander tries to interject]. If you want to avoid the question, let’s just be clear that that’s what’s happening.
Alexander: I don’t want to avoid the question, Rosemary. You want to avoid the fact that the biggest conflict, and the biggest humanitarian crisis of our times, has been there for two years, and you and others have not put it in the headlines where it deserves to be.
Barton: That’s right.
[Bickering between Barton, Dewar, Alexander]
McCallum: That’s total nonsense.
Dewar: Chris, we had a full study at this at committee, we had a full study, and I’ve been on this panel many times on this very program on this subject. So, it’s sad that you’re not allowed to be on programs like this when you’re a minister. But we discussed this, we had a full committee report as you know, the foreign affairs committee, which was at the behest of our party, which pushed the government for refugees, which the government did say to have, to commit to the 1,300 finally, which was not sufficient. So Chris, you’re right in that this is something we all saw coming. The problem is your government failed to act. And I must say, with due respect to you, sir, you failed to act as a minister. And you just said it earlier when you said you only got 2,500 in, and after we’d been asked by the UNHCR for 10,000. You failed.
Barton: Mr. Alexander, you can respond to that sir.
Alexander: Well you have failed to acknowledge reality, the 20,000 Iraqis that have come to this country—
Dewar: We welcome that.
Alexander: You never acknowledge it.
Dewar: Yes we did. Well, you make everything up Chris so I’ll leave that for others—
Alexander: And you also failed in an abject way to do anything about the source of this problem, which is jihadist terrorism—
Dewar: So where was I last year? I was with your colleague Mr. Baird in Iraq, this very day a year ago—
Barton: Okay, okay, Mr. McCallum wants one more turn here and he can get it. And Mr. McCallum, you can also—Mr. Alexander, I’m going to ask Mr. McCallum a question now. You can respond to this, and part of the response will be, if you are promising 25,000 government-sponsored refugees, how long will it take for that to happen under a Liberal government?
McCallum: Within three years, and Justin Trudeau said today that is a beginning.
Barton: Is that even possible though, given how long it’s taking this government to get 10,000?
McCallum: Do you know what? It depends on the political will. Back in 1956 at the Hungarian revolution when Canada was tiny, the minister himself went over there and arranged the boats, arranged the processing. We brought over, when Canada was a tiny country, I think it was 35,000 refugees in a single year. Why do you think we’ve had very, very few refugees in this country compared with Germany, compared with Sweden? Because this government doesn’t care. It’s a departure from Brian Mulroney, from Joe Clark, from Canada’s long-standing traditions, and I would just say that I think Chris Alexander’s constituents agree with that, which is why I think Mark Holland will win the election in his riding.
Barton: Okay, that was also a little talking point, but I guess that’s all fair game right now. And now we’re going to leave it, and Mr. Alexander, I’m going to send you links of the many times that we’ve discussed Syrian refugees on this program and on CBC News Network.
Barton: Thanks, you’d be a great MP for Markham-Unionville.
Dewar: I’ll send you the foreign affairs committee report on—
Barton: Thank you, John McCallum, Chris Alexander, who’s welcome back any time, and Paul Dewar, thank you all.