Speaking notes for the Honourable John McCallum, P.C., M.P., Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and the Honourable Jane Philpott, P.C., M.P., Minister of Health at a news conference updating Canada's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees


Ottawa, Ontario
December 16, 2015

As delivered

Hon. John McCallum: Hello. Good morning, everybody. It’s a pleasure for the two of us to be with you today. What we’re going to do is I’m going to turn over to my colleague Jane Philpott, who will talk about the Interim Federal Health Program. And then she will make some additional comments, and then it will be back to me, and I will talk about how this is a national project, and given that, we are enlisting the support of Canadians, including business, and we are being totally upfront and honest in communicating everything to Canadians in terms of this voyage. So let me turn it over first to my colleague Jane Philpott.

Hon. Jane Philpott: Thank you, Minister McCallum. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today and to join you at this weekly technical briefing. So Minister McCallum has asked me to speak to you today about a topic that was discussed here, I believe, a week ago, namely the Interim Federal Health Program for Refugees.

Last week, Mr. McCallum talked about how we had fully restored the Interim Federal Health Program for all Syrian refugees coming to Canada. Both basic and supplementary benefits are available to them.

The plight of Syrian refugees has constituted “exceptional and compelling circumstances” that warranted, in this case, to expand health coverage for these groups. Indeed, Border Service officers provided all refugees who have landed in Toronto and in Montreal over the past few days with Interim Federal Health Program certificates. As you know, our government has committed to restoring the program for all refugees to Canada, and we are working to do that as soon as we possibly can.

And so, in working toward that, it is my pleasure this morning to announce on behalf of the Minister of Justice, as well as the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, that we are moving toward that goal today by withdrawing the Government of Canada’s appeal of the 2014 Federal Court decision. The Court ruled that the previous government’s changes to the Interim Federal Health Program violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in order to comply with the Court’s decision, that government temporarily extended coverage. We will keep that temporarily expanded coverage in place for the time being as we review the program to address gaps in the coverage that remain, with the goal of fulfilling our promise to fully restore this program.

We will be announcing further information about the Interim Federal Health Program in the coming weeks. Our decision not to pursue this appeal is consistent with Canadian values when it comes to refugee care.

And I’ll be happy to take further questions later on, and I’ll pass it back to Minister McCallum.

Hon. John McCallum: Thank you. As I have mentioned many times, this project is truly a national plan, and not simply a governmental plan, which has at least two consequences. First of all, we welcome the support of all Canadians in carrying out this project. And secondly, we need to be very open and honest in communicating our plans, including our plans concerning the 10,000 refugees who we hope to welcome before the end of the year.

So as a national plan, there are two implications. One, all Canadians are involved, not just governments – from 50 school kids I met with welcome signs, to small and large corporations, up to the recent donation of $5-million dollars by CN. So I want to talk about the support provided to this effort by the business community. And second, I want to talk about our plans regarding the planes and the numbers. I think if it’s a national project, it means it is incumbent on government to fully inform Canadians of the ups and the downs along this voyage, and that is what I will do in the final part of my comments.

So in terms of business support, I am very pleased that business has really come to the forefront. We had a meeting earlier this week in Toronto hosted by the TD Bank, and involving as well Perrin Beatty, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. Frank McKenna was the host. There were many businesspeople there, and I made a plea at that time for the business community to come out and support this project, and we set a target of $50-million dollars for support from the business community – principally, but not exclusively, devoted to the housing needs of the refugees. And at that meeting, it was announced that the Community Foundations of Canada, headed by Ian Bird, would be the main player in this in terms of a fund for housing using CN’s $5-million dollars as seed money, and also appointing a panel of experts to help them make sure that the money that they receive is directed very efficiently to the best places in terms of housing support.

Simultaneously, the Chamber of Commerce is setting up a panel – including five of the former chairs of the Chamber and chaired by Sean Finn of CN – to reach out more generally to business, not just in housing, but in other areas. And so I believe that these few groups and others will engage the business community of Canada and ensure their financial support for this project. Already, as I have said before, many companies, many individuals, have come forward to assist, and I think it is my hope that they are the tip of the iceberg and that many more will come forward in the coming days.

I think that the business community is very enthusiastic about offering financial support for this project. This is a really strong signal that this is indeed a national project, and these efforts to raise money on the part of the business sector are at arm’s length from government, so it is up to them to raise the money and to direct it to housing support and to other things.

So the next and the final issue I want to deal with is the question of the flights, and the arrivals of a large number of people between now and the end of the year. I want to announce that the next flight will be on December 18th, the day after tomorrow, and it will be from Beirut to Toronto, and it will have mainly government-assisted refugees. In coming days — well, it has to be tomorrow or the next day — we will give you further information on the number of people on the flight, but I do know now that it is a flight from Beirut to Toronto on the 18th of December with primarily government-assisted refugees.

Now if you ask about the flights in the rest of the month, there’s 15 days left, and the large number of refugees we will need to bring to Canada to reach our target,– almost a thousand have arrived already – so we need another 9,000 in just over two weeks. And so how are we going to do that?

Well, I will have for you a detailed schedule of the flights early next week. What I am telling you today is that there will be this flight on December 18th. There will be a large number of flights, averaging perhaps two per day – some days may have three, some days may have zero, but on average, some two flights per day in the next couple of weeks.

And how are we doing this? Well, I want to emphasize the amazing work done on the ground, as you’ve heard in the technical briefing. There are certain factors that we control and that there are others that we are less in control of.

So beginning with the factors that we control, I think we will have sufficient aircraft to meet our target. Royal Jordanian Airlines is certainly playing a significant role. There may be Canadian airlines as well. I think we have really stepped up our processing capacity. We have at least 500 public servants on the ground. So we have 15,000 people in progress, in the process of being interviewed.

One of the areas that was troubling was the medical side, in terms of the time that is required to do the medical exams. But we have increased our capacity to do medical exams. Within two weeks, we have increased from 600 per week to 800 per day. So that is an example of the massive increase in capacity that we have achieved in the field.

So I think we’re good to go on planes. I think we’ve successfully addressed our challenges on the medical front. I think we’re good to go in terms of the security interviews thanks to this colossal effort.

And there are two other areas which I would mention over which we have less control. One of these is the exit permits from Lebanon. There were some challenges there. Those seem to have been addressed, and so I would like once again to thank the Government of Lebanon for their important assistance in this area.

But the last factor that is somewhat beyond our control is that if you’re a Syrian family and you are told, let us say, on December 28th that your processing has been complete and you’re welcome to come to Canada, you may not want to go on the 29th or the 30th or the 31st. You may want to say goodbye to your families and friends. You may have some assets that you wish to sell. And so this is a very human element. And we in the Government of Canada don’t control that human element, and so we cannot say to an individual you have to come by the end of the year. That is wrong, and we would never say such a thing.

So to the extent that some of the families already approved need a little more time to sell their assets or to say goodbye to their friends, we will give them that time. And so that is one of the challenges, which is not really controlled by the government, in order to meet our target.

So there are the challenges I’ve mentioned, some of which are under our control, some of which are not. But what I can say is that we are – all of us, in the regions and in Canada – working extremely hard to make sure these refugees come to this country as quickly as possible. But also, we insist that it be done well in terms of health and security and well in terms of giving the refugees a little bit of extra time if they need it to close up their affairs in Lebanon or Jordan before coming here.

And so, we are working very hard to achieve our objective, with the support of the thousands of people helping us.

So finally, and perhaps I’m going on a little long, but I just want to close with a thank you. I want to thank, in particular, our colleague the Minister of National Defence, who’s not only stepped up with the additional medical capacity, but he’s also offered us the services of C-17, that largest of airplanes, to help, if need be. I’m not sure that it will be needed, but he is making it available, and this just proves the point that this is truly an all-government project.

I want to thank the Governments of Lebanon and Jordan. They’ve pulled out all the stops in Jordan, from the King on down, to help us in every way possible. And Lebanon, as I have just said, is cooperating fully in terms of exit permits.

And last but not least, I want to have a huge thank you to our public service, not only over there, but also here. And I was really struck in Montreal to see all the public servants working so hard and so enthusiastically. We had a countdown for when the first refugees would walk through the door. We heard they were 20 minutes away, and you know, everybody in the room was super excited. And for the people who work for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, it really goes to the core of their job to welcome newcomers to Canada. So this was a wonderful experience for them and for me.

And for the Premier of Quebec, the mayor of Montreal and me, it was truly an excellent co-operative exercise across all three governments, and I very much thank all of the officials working on this project – not only the federal officials, but also those from Quebec. We worked very well together

So that was a somewhat lengthy description, but I think it is incumbent on us to keep Canadians fully informed. And so I don’t really apologize for taking the time, because I have told Canadians what we know. And so you now know what we know in terms of the plane arrivals, and in terms of my commitment to give you a full schedule early next week. And so Canadians know this, and it’s right that Canadians should know this because it being a national project, not only is it Canadian taxpayers putting up close to $700 million, but Canadians — individuals and companies — are coming forward to help. And so I think everybody should be fully informed of where we are in terms of this national voyage.

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