Vancouver mayor urges Ottawa to act now on refugee resettlement

September 7, 2015

By Kat Sieniuc, Globe and Mail

The mayor of Vancouver is calling on the federal government to take immediate action to increase the number of government-supported and privately sponsored refugees being accepted to Canada.

Gregor Robertson, who is also the chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, is calling on Ottawa to establish a permanent national baseline of 20,000 government-supported refugees accepted annually.

“Anything less falls short of Canada’s long-standing commitment to welcoming refugees and their families in times of desperate need, so that they may start new lives with hope, security and freedom here in Canada,” Mr. Robertson told The Globe and Mail on Monday.

Mr. Robertson’s stance on the global crisis is the latest voice in a chorus of Canadian mayors who are pressing the federal government to help cities assist refugees: Toronto Mayor John Tory is personally contributing to sponsor a refugee family and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has urged municipalities to work with faith groups, non-profits and other community organizations to bring more people to the country.

Mr. Robertson will deliver his call to action in a motion to council on Tuesday. In the motion, he says the federal response to the refugee crisis in Syria is failing international obligations. It notes the number of refugees Canada has committed to accept pales in comparison to past crises, dropping from around 20,000 in 1980 to 6,900 in 2015.

The city will hold a public forum aimed at giving Vancouverites information on ways they can help refugees, from fundraising initiatives to private sponsorships.

“The crisis that broke last week, we felt it immediately,” Councillor Geoff Meggs said. “There were a lot of calls to the mayor’s office and to councillors asking whether there were specific things the city could do.” He added that while Vancouver has spent several million dollars on housing for new refugees – as well as funded other settlement services such as access to recreational facilities and libraries – there are limits to what a municipality can do without strong backing from Ottawa. “The thing that we’re looking for is a systematic approach to bringing those folks here,” he said. “We’re ready to play our role, but we need that leadership at the federal government.”

So far, Canada has accepted 2,374 Syrian refugees and has pledged to bring in a total of 11,300 over three years. Federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees over four years if re-elected.

Mr. Meggs said the City of Vancouver is prepared to accept its share of refugees “and then some.”

“We’ll do everything that we think we possibly can to support refugees here,” he said. “There isn’t a fixed number.”

He added some of Vancouver’s strongest communities were born from previous crises, including war in the Balkans and Vietnam.

Chris Friesen, director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., is leading the city’s forum and said Ottawa’s efforts to provide Syrians refuge have been “laughable.”

“How we’re approaching this is going to take years to meet our commitments that we’ve given to the United Nations,” he said.

Mr. Friesen, who’s worked with refugees in Canada and abroad for 30 years, said he’s seen an outpouring of interest from Vancouver residents over the last week asking how they can sponsor or assist refugees.

“People are wanting to do something immediately to make a difference,” he said.

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