Canada’s leadership on refugee crisis part of national identity, says expert panel

Public roundtable looks at whether Canada’s management of migrants is a new model for the world to follow.


There was no consensus on the question of whether Canada’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis constitutes a new model, but participants in a panel discussion on the subject at the University of Alberta agreed that it’s the right approach.

The panel drew on representatives of provincial and municipal government, refugee-serving agencies and academic experts, and was organized by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, the European Union Centre of Excellence, the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

Andre Corbould, Alberta’s deputy minister of jobs, skills, training and labour, said he sees Canada’s efforts to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February—3,000 of whom will be settled in Alberta—as consistent with the country’s tradition of welcoming people displaced by conflict and oppression.

“We just need to remember that receiving 25,000 refugees is the start and not the end of the work,” Corbould said.

He noted that 1,225 refugees have already arrived in Alberta, more than half of them children, and that 175 of those children are already enrolled in Alberta schools.

Erick Ambtman, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, said the current refugee crisis is unprecedented in many ways, so it’s too early to say whether Canada’s response is a new model for managing migration.

“We don’t know yet what shape or form it’s going to take, but what’s going on now is very,very different from what we’ve seen before,” he said.

Ambtman said the high volume of migrants arriving and the public demand for an effective response is helping address some “festering issues” with newcomer settlement, citing as an example the allotment for housing a family that doesn’t reflect the reality of rental costs in a city like Edmonton. He also expressed amazement at the public outpouring of support for incoming refugees, saying that the number of people offering to volunteer with the newcomer-serving agencies has tripled, while donations to his organization’s emergency fund have increased more than tenfold.

Jennifer Fowler, director of multicultural relations for the City of Edmonton, said the current focus should be on how the settlement of migrants can be improved, pointing to the increased integration between levels of government required to meet the needs of the increased number of newcomers.

“We don’t want to waste a good crisis,” Fowler said.

Agnieszka Weinar, a senior fellow with the European University Institute and Carleton University, and Ibrahim Cin, executive director of Edmonton’s Intercultural Dialogue Institute, provided context regarding the European Union’s and Turkey’s response to the refugee crisis. Both commended Canada’s response but, although Cin suggested Canada could provide a model to the world, Weinar noted that Canada has “the luxury of geography” in not being directly accessible to migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and presents “a model for a specific situation.”

Responding to a question from the audience about whether Canada had a moral obligation to provide leadership on the refugee crisis, most of the panellists agreed that providing such leadership is central to how Canadians see themselves and are seen on the international stage.

U of A political scientist Reza Hasmath, whose research focuses on the labour market integration of newcomers to Canada, added that there are also strategic benefits to receiving refugees, from building goodwill and promoting peace to enjoying the economic benefit of highly skilled migrants joining communities. But Hasmath also pointed out that policies and programs to support migrants entering the workforce are only part of the solution to reaping those benefits, and that Canadians and newcomers must work to build the trust required for successful integration.

Migration Views

Read more thoughts by Reza Hasmath and other experts at Migration Views, a U of A website featuring reflections on migration and the Syrian refugee crisis by more than 30 academics, students, alumni and members of the broader community.