Siobhan Byrne: ‘Canada is back’? Reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2015 Canadian federal election

On Dec. 10, newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first government airlift of 163 privately-sponsored Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Another airlift of 161 refugees arrived in Montreal on Dec. 12, with more government planes scheduled to land in the coming weeks. Their arrival marks the official beginning of the Liberal Party’s campaign pledge to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. Canada expects to welcome 25,000 refugees fleeing the bloody four-year war in Syria by late Feb. 2016.

Canadians are watching closely: the Liberals need to fulfill their election promise to resettle Syrian refugees – a promise that distinguished the party from the NDP and Conservatives in the run up to the Oct. 19 federal election. The Liberals maintain that the party’s commitment to refugees, along with a promise to end Canadian support for US airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, helps return Canada to a once-upon-a-time progressive, internationalist, and humanitarian identity. Speaking at the Paris climate change talks last month, Prime Minister Trudeau announced ‘Canada is back.’ Revised refugee targets and exclusionary refugee admittance practices are already being implemented, however, raising serious doubts about whether the new government will deliver on this promise.

The recently revised refugee resettlement schedule is perhaps unsurprising. The initial campaign promise to take in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by year’s end was ambitious. No doubt, too, the new government was paying attention to the Nov. 18 Angus Reid poll, which reported that a majority of Canadians did not support the refugee resettlement targets (although a recent poll indicates a slim majority of Canadians now support the plan). And in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Prime Minister Trudeau was met with a vocal opposition, concerned that a mass intake of refugees poses a national security risk. The Trudeau government says it is still committed to the original 25,000 target overall, but now plans to meet this target with a mix of government and privately sponsored refugees by late Feb. 2016. This is a less ambitious plan to be sure – one that challenges the Liberal claim that Canada is indeed back. It is also one that is beginning to look more like the NDP and Conservative pledges made during the election campaign period.

The Syrian refugee crisis emerged as a key election issue in early September, about a month after the official election period kicked off on Aug. 2. This came at an auspicious time for the Liberal Party, which was keen to distinguish itself from Mr. Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives. In the initial month of the election period, the Conservatives were leading in the polls with a set of increasingly Islamophobic foreign policy and domestic security and citizenship policies. The Liberals needed to stand out during an ugly campaign.

The Conservative government was banking on a fearful electorate to deliver support for new radical citizenship and immigration reforms. The government had already passed controversial legislation in the run up to the election. For example, Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, was introduced shortly after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot dead a Canadian solider at Ottawa’s War Memorial and stormed Parliament Hill in the fall 2014. Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec-born man who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction, spouted the kind of violent pro-terrorism extremism that served as a convenient foil for Mr. Harper’s new anti-terrorism legislation.

Mr. Harper referenced the incident when he made the case for Bill C-51, which broadens the powers of Canada’s spy agency the Canadian Security Intelligence Services, provides for preventative arrests by police, and allows government agencies to share personal information about Canadians. Critics charge that the anti-terrorism bill may paint all activists with the terrorism brush, lead to false arrests, and undermine the privacy rights of Canadians. For Mr. Harper, Zehaf-Bibeau’s act confirmed ‘the threat of terrorism and violent jihadism is very real’ and helped set the stage for the introduction of new anti-terrorism legislation.

The Conservatives also passed Bill S-7 Jun. 18, known as the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The Act, purported to protect women from early and forced marriage, polygamy, and honour killings, passed amidst intense debates about whether women should be permitted to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Speaking about the controversy over citizenship ceremonies, then Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in a Vice TV interview published Jun. 10: ‘We’ve done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don’t want their co-citizens to be terrorists.’ Here, the association of faith-based symbols and culture with terrorism is shockingly clear.

By the time the election campaign officially kicked off in August, the government was moving quickly to announce additional policies and promises that drew on similar themes. In September, the government ordered the revocation of citizenship of a Jordanian-born Canadian citizen who was convicted of terrorism charges. Notices were sent to a handful of other Canadians informing them that the government planned to revoke their citizenship too. The government also announced plans to develop a ‘barbaric practices’ tip line ostensibly to complement the new barbaric practices act. The tip line would encourage neighbours to report suspected barbaric practices to the police.

But by this stage, the identification of Muslim men and women as threats to Canadian security and values was wearing thin with an electorate increasingly concerned that the government wasn’t doing enough to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. The massive wave of refugees fleeing the four-year Syrian War hit the Canadian election in early September. Canadians were paying attention to the treacherous journey refugees were taking, braving the waters in over-packed life rafts to escape the war. A photograph of a lifeless Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach resort illustrated the human cost of the humanitarian crisis – and Canada’s connection to the Syrian War.

Three-year-old Aylan’s tiny body, dressed in a red t-shirt and laying face down in the surf, was published on the front page of the Globe and Mail on Sept. 3. He drowned in the Aegean Sea on Sept. 2, along with his five-year-old brother Ghalib and mother Rehana. Travelling with his father Abdullah, who survived, their inflatable dinghy capsized as they attempted to reach the Greek island of Kos. Canadians learned that the Kurdi family planned to resettle with family in Port Coquitlam, BC but had given up hope.

Conservatives underestimated Canadians’ reaction to the refugee crisis – emphasizing that Canada must continue military support for US-led airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria to respond to the crisis. The public outrage over the death of Aylan and his family and a new concern for the tens of thousands of refugees risking their lives to escape to war was an opportunity for the NDP and Liberal parties. The NDP promised to take a moderate number of government sponsored refugees – 10,000 – while the Liberals pledged 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by year’s end.

Now, the Conservatives were not the only party that clung to a troubling script which identified Islam as an ever present threat to national security. For their part, the Liberal Party had also supported the new anti-terrorism act and it remains to be seen what changes they may make to it now that they lead the government. In the run up to the elections, the Liberals and NDP also both focused on the risk of ‘radicalization’ of Canadian Muslim men and boys. As NDP leader Mr. Tom Mulcair said: ‘We should be doing something at home, which is combatting radicalization – something that [Conservative Leader] Stephen Harper has failed to do.’ This script – that Muslim men and boys pose a (potential) threat to Canadian security – is evident in early revisions that Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have made to their own refugee resettlement strategy now that they have won the election.

Like the NDP’s party promise, the Liberals plan to admit just 10,000 Syrian refugees by the New Year. But unlike the NDP, the Liberals will now make up this number with a combination of government-sponsored and private sponsored refugees – suggesting an even more modest target. Troubling still is the new policy will (perhaps initially) exclude many single men. According to Citizenship and Immigration: ‘Canada’s focus will be on identifying vulnerable refugees who are a lower security risk such as women, complete families and persons identified as vulnerable due to membership in the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.’

Here, it is Syrian (heterosexual) men who threaten Canadian security – gay men and ‘womenandchildren’ (a term coined by Cynthia Enloe to emphasize the way women are constructed as helpless victims in global politics) are especially vulnerable. Of course, this is not true. According to UNHCR, more than 4 million people have fled the Syrian War and there are 7.6 million more displaced persons inside Syria. All Syrians: men and women – whether married, single, widowed, or the like – boys and girls, are at risk in this warzone. This policy may have the further unintended consequence of putting gay Syrian men at risk. As Danny Ramadan, a recent gay Syrian refugee living in Vancouver explains to Metro News, asking men in refugee camps to declare their sexual orientation may put them in danger should their status become known in the camp. The fear of lone (presumed to be) Muslim men, what the press refers to as ‘unaccompanied men,’ works together with the fear of ‘radicalization.’ Here, the idea is that any (presumed to be) Muslim man is at risk of radicalizing and violence – particularly young men.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rise of far-right ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, and the xenophobic diatribes of popular political figures like Donald Trump in the US, Syrian refugees will continue to face hurdles as they attempt to escape the violence and bloodshed of war. Offering refuge to Syrian people in Canada is but one step in the process of confronting political violence and supporting human dignity and rights. Challenging the script of Islam as dangerous – which fuels xenophobia and war – will require more than a return to an imagined Canadian past, sentimentalized in the proclamation: Canada is back! It will require the political will to interrogate the effects of ‘radicalization’ scares, to reverse policies that discriminate against Syrian men and paint them as threatening, and to fulfill the ambitious and laudatory refugee resettlement promise.

Dr. Siobhan Byrne is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta and Director of the Certificate in Peace and Post Conflict Studies. For more information see her website: