On the day that I am writing this blog, the 10,000th Syrian refugee landed at Toronto Pearson airport. This fact made a small splash in the media as the conversation about whether the federal government will meet its various deadlines and arrival numbers of Government assisted and privately sponsored or the ‘best of both worlds' (as a colleague recently said) the blended version (BVOR – Blended Visa Office Referral) continued. This ongoing ‘will they or won't they' speculation has become something of a sport for media and sector types and for the most part is discussed in light tones, with the underlying understanding that what is important is that folks continue to arrive, that receiving communities (sponsors, agencies, municipalities) are prepared and that the Province and Federal government are ensuring required resources (funds, people) are in place and easily accessed.
I continue to be in awe of the response by Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Here in Ontario, the provincial government set the tone by coming out ahead of the national pack and committing significant funds to the resettlement effort, balancing between our needs here at home in terms of sector capacity and our international obligations to support emergency efforts in the camps in Syrian neighbours (Jordon, Lebanon, Turkey). This explicit demonstration of positive political will galvanized municipalities, the public, non-profit and corporate sectors. And civil society continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with organizations, institutions and businesses in responding to the call to create welcoming communities.
This massive undertaking or as federal minister McCallum calls it the national project, is beginning to show some hiccups here and there. Communication amongst the various players – everything from flight arrival times and destination of arrivals continues to frustrate the best efforts; funding from the federal government through IRCC (other than for Refugee Assistance Program delivery agencies) has been slow in coming to service agencies already seeing an increase in clientele; and there have been some reports that private sponsors were not receiving timely notification of the arrival of their sponsored families.
All of this is fixable and efforts are being made to address them as quickly as possible. The availability of affordable, adequate (size) housing is our most pressing issue, especially in the larger urban centres where reception houses are located, one requiring a variety of responses, from extended stays in hotels to rental subsidies. And therein lies the problem. A political problem. A policy headache.
Over the last decade or so, we have allowed a narrative to develop that refugees are entitled to benefits beyond what the ‘average Canadian' receives. This discourse was promoted in no small part by the previous federal government and has resulted in the creation of bigoted, harmful urban myths that are proving difficult to dispel. This has resulted in a hypersensitivity of government policy makers and elected officials – how many times have we seen the federal minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship Canada on television assuring Canadians that refugees are not jumping the queue on housing, social assistance, health services (just name an issue or service area)?
While I understand the political imperative for these announcements – keeping the good will of Canadians with respect to the Syrian refugee resettlement effort (and hopefully by extension other refugee groups) – it also means that options for resolving the housing crisis remain fairly narrow as there is little political will to invest public funds at the issue, through subsidies for example. The question that I'm constantly asked whenever I raise this issue is ‘what about other Canadians on the social housing waitlist? What about other poor folks needing housing subsidy?” My response? Let us use this opportunity to invest immediately in social housing. Let's use the spotlight that the Syrian resettlement project has shone on our housing crisis to increase the number of available rental subsidies in the short and intermediate term, while we look at incentives for developers to build affordable housing; to increase the housing stock that can accommodate larger families in the longer term. Everyone can benefit. While there are many nodding heads to these suggestions, I have yet to hear a definitive yes from the folks who really matter, the political decision-makers.
The federal government came up with an interesting proposition around the housing crisis issue. They challenged corporate Canada to raise fifty million dollars that will go towards housing for Syrians. The pot was started with a $5million donation from CN. Innovative thinking some might say, an opportunity for the private sector to participate in this project in concrete (no pun intended) ways. But we come up against a policy wall here for government assisted refugees. Any funds they receive to assist with their living costs will be clawed back from their monthly stipend received from the government. (Let me shatter another urban myth, refugees do NOT receive thousands of dollars more than Canadian seniors receive from their pension. The stipend they receive is based on provincial social assistance rates. Nothing less. Nothing more.) This is fixable. What we need is forward thinking political will to get ourselves out of policy incoherence.
The Syrian refugee resettlement project is providing us with many opportunities to make policy fixes. The suspension of the loan repayment scheme for Syrians is good policy. It should be extended to all refugees. Access to the interim federal health program for all Syrian refugees whether government assisted or privately sponsored makes policy sense. Again, extend to all refugees regardless of country of origin. This is doable. It is forward thinking. And it strengthens our refugee protection system.