Speech to Humanity First Donor Conference on Resettling Syrian Refugees


Hon. John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
Speech to Humanity First Donor Conference on Resettling Syrian Refugees
Friday, November 20, 2015

Check Against Delivery

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Daud, I know that Humanity First does terrific humanitarian work and also on refugees and settlement. So for that reason, it is a huge pleasure and honour for me that I am here to give my very first speech as Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

Indeed, it is the first time that the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has spoken anywhere in Canada because it is a new title. It used to be the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and the word Refugees has been added to the name - I think that is symbolic because it is the Prime Minister who decides on these names and this means that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sending a strong message that refugees are important to Canada.

And equally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sending a message that Canadians will welcome refugees, and that refugees are important to building a stronger and better Canada.

Now, if I can step back two weeks and two days, which is when Cabinet was formed, I would say that I am honoured that our Prime Minister included an old dog like me in his young diverse Cabinet. (laughter)  And that I'm even more honoured that he gave this old dog the job of having to run faster than any other Cabinet Minister. (laughter)  At least for the next two or three months.

You know, a bit more seriously, well that's not unserious, but I'm an economist and I often deal with what you might call dollars and cents or bread and butter issues, but this one is different. This one is about values. This one is more emotional. And this one leads me to say I have never felt so patriotic as a Canadian as I am today, to be involved in bringing 25,000 people from the most dire conditions on the planet here to our blessed country of Canada.

But obviously, it is not just me. I am working with hundreds of people first hand, thousands of public servants, and indeed it is a job of all Canadians, millions of people who are involved in this project. It is our proposition that we will not only bring these refugees to Canada fast, but we will also do it right. And let me explain what I mean by doing it right.

We will give every possible consideration to concerns based on security. My colleague, Public Security Minister, Ralph Goodale, will speak in more detail on this issue, but I would point out that just recently, the heads of both CSIS and the RCMP have said that security concerns could be satisfied under our plan. My colleague, Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, will deal in great detail with the concerns regarding health. 

I suppose that security and health might be at the top of the list, but we also have other challenges-we have to identify all of these refugees. We have to make sure they have exit permits.  We have to get planes to transport them across the ocean. We have to have places for them to put a roof over their head when they get here. And we are determined, working with partners at all levels of government, with civil society and with all Canadians, to do everything we can to do this right. 

And just today, I announced that the government will be announcing the details of this plan to all Canadians next Tuesday.

The fact that the plan will only be announced next Tuesday has not stopped me from reaching out to many people. I have had conversations on this subject with 13 provincial and territorial Ministers of Immigration, with no less than 32 mayors so far, and with many other stakeholders. One thing I can tell you is that all of these people expressed support and solidarity on this mission to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada.

Indeed, I'll tell you one thing that maybe I shouldn't tell you.  Maybe it's supposed to be a secret. Maybe it's supposed to wait till Tuesday, but I'll tell you anyway. When I spoke to provincial Ministers, each of them set out a commitment for how many refugees that Minister thought his or her province could accommodate. The total goal is 25,000. If you add up all the commitments given by all the Ministers, they've oversubscribed. It's more than 25,000.

So I offer a heartfelt thanks to all of those Ministers, and all of those Premiers, and all of those provincial governments, with one little caveat. A commitment doesn't mean that those people's feet are yet on Canadian soil. But it's an immensely good start to our process, to have such enthusiasm, not only in words, but in numbers from provincial and territorial colleagues. 

I would also mention that help doesn't just come from elected people. We have had thousands of members of the federal public service, provincial public service, municipal public service, working around the clock to make this happen. And we are also reaching out to businesses and Chambers of Commerce – we have reached out to some degree, we will be doing more – to help all these refugees find work because, as you know, they have support for maybe a year, but the idea is not that they be dependent on the state for too long. The idea is that, as soon as possible, they get out, get a job, work and contribute like all other Canadians to our country. 

I know that one of the issues is adequacy of housing. And I know that we are working very hard on that front, but I also know that some people with thick wallets and a good heart have already come forward to offer cheaper or free housing for our newcomers and I thank them all for their generosity, and I encourage many more to come forward.

The last theme I would like to advance to you is that yes, this is a great humanitarian venture, but it's not just that. If you look to the medium term, this is good not only for Canada because we're doing the right thing, but it's also good for the Canadian economy and the growth of Canada, it's good for the diversity of our country, and it makes Canada not only a better place, but helps create a bigger, stronger economy. 

And so, I want you to remember that this, in economist language, is something that has short-run costs but long-run gains. So of course there will be costs in the short run. A lot of the people we will be welcoming don't speak English or French. Some of them may have health issues, mental health issues, other issues because they have come from a world that many of us find hard to imagine in terms of its challenges and its problems. 

But they will adapt, they will cope, they will learn and they will become hardworking members of Canadian society. And to make this point, I want to go back in history and think of the waves of refugees that we have welcomed in the past. Think of the 35,000 Hungarians who we welcomed at the time of the Hungarian revolution. I think we welcomed 35,000 when Canada was a tiny little country back then– well it was the same size geographically – but with maybe only 15 million people, something like that, we welcomed 35,000 I think, in a single year.

Or think back to the 60,000 Vietnamese boat people whom we welcomed under Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark. Or think of all of the people who came from Uganda when it was under Idi Amin’s rule, thousands of them that we welcomed. And notice I included Progressive Conservatives, because my point is that this is not a Liberal proposition. This is a Canadian proposition that has been espoused by Liberal governments and by Progressive governments over the past decades, and that is why I think all Canadians can come together to make it work.

Just by chance, one of my officials said to me today that he was once talking to somebody from a different continent, and he said you know, after a certain time, over 70% of our refugees are in the workforce. And that person said oh, you mean 7%? No, I mean 70% the official replied. So in other words, we have a history of making it work.  This person thought 70% was unimaginable, he must mean 7. But no, it's 70.

And so the history of all these people coming from these faraway lands is that they do, after a certain short period of adjustment, work hard but join the labour force and do very well. And so let me just give you a few examples. Since World War II, we've had a million refugees. Two past Governor Generals are refugees. Adrienne Clarkson and her family from Hong Kong in 1942 at the time of the Japanese occupation and Michaëlle Jean from Haiti. Our current Governor General, who I know well because he used to be my boss ( he was the head of McGill and I was a dean)- he's not a refugee but he has a passionate interest in refugees.

Peter Munk, a prominent business person, is a refugee. Kim Thuy is a Governor General award-winning writer who was one of the Vietnamese boat people. Maryam Monsef is one of my cabinet colleagues, 31 years old, by my standards pretty young, and she was a refugee from Afghanistan.  And I know of at least three recently elected Members of Parliament who came here as refugees. 

So look, I'm listing some prominent refugees who have become very prominent. Not every refugee is like that. The refugees are our neighbours, our friends and often we don't even know that they are refugees, but my point is that some refugees have become very prominent, but in general, the statistics show, the evidence shows that refugees make a great contribution to our country and they are to be welcomed, not just because we are kind – I hope that's part of it – but also because they will, in the longer term and the medium term, make a great contribution to our country.

So in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, as I say, I am honoured to have this job, to be a part of this process of bringing quickly, but properly, 25,000 refugees from Syria who have fled Syria to Canada.  I am honoured to serve under our Prime Minister  who changed the name of my department to emphasize refugees, and who has made a very bold and principled commitment to do this job. 

And in closing, I just want to thank all of you who I know are committed to this project and to refugees in general. And I also want to reach out to all Canadians to support this initiative in whatever way you can over coming months because it is the right thing to do, and working together, we can do it in the right way.

Thank you very much.

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