POLITICS

John McCallum: Syrian Refugee Plan's Impact On Immigration Levels Undetermined

11/10/2015 08:12 EST | Updated 11/10/2016 05:12 EST

OTTAWA — The time-sensitive nature of the Liberal commitment to Syrian refugees will dominate the first few months of the government's actions on the immigration file as a whole, the immigration minister says.

And the ripple effect that commitment could also have on other programs within the portfolio has yet to be figured out, John McCallum says.

Each year, the government sets a range for immigration levels in all categories, and spaces for refugees and other humanitarian cases are usually about 10 per cent of the total.

Where resettling 25,000 Syrians by year-end fits into that and how it could affect immigration levels from other programs is a question many organizations have been asking in recent weeks, wondering whether it will mean other categories will be cut back or refugee resettlement programs from other areas of the world will be affected.

"We have not addressed that question yet but it will certainly come up and in general, my philosophy is to favour more rather than fewer immigrants but the precise numbers are yet to be determined," McCallum said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

McCallum said the Liberals intend to take a new approach to the immigration file overall, which he described as making Canada far more welcoming for families by making reunification easier, which ranges from adding staff to get wait times down to adjusting policies in a number of areas, including the points system under the economic immigration stream.

"Our general mantra is we want to welcome newcomers with a smile," he said.

That's also reflected in the decision to place the word refugee itself into the formal title of the department, now known as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, McCallum said.

"It speaks to the nature of the country, it speaks to a long tradition under both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments," he said.

"And I think from only after a very short time in this job, I am sensing that across the country people and organizations across the country want to support this."

The Liberals have created a cabinet committee specifically to deal with the Syrian refugee resettlement program, to be run by Health Minister Jane Philpott and which includes the ministers of defence, foreign affairs, Canadian heritage, public safety, international development, and the minister of democratic institutions.

The committee was to meet for the first time Tuesday and McCallum said all are working towards the target of getting 25,000 resettled by year's end.

The refugee promise was the centrepiece of the Liberals' immigration-related campaign promises and the deadline attached to it means work on other promises, including family reunification, is taking a temporary back seat.

McCallum said the other two high priority items for him are restoring full health-care coverage for refugee claimants, something cut drastically by the Conservatives, and repealing a controversial new law that allows dual citizens to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship if they're convicted of treason, terrorism offences, aiding the enemy in battle, espionage or communicating safeguarded or operational information.

But McCallum would not attach a timeline to either of those promises.

Under the Conservatives, the immigration portfolio had also taken on new political dimensions, with the minister placed in charge of the file in 2011, Jason Kenney, also the Conservatives point-man for outreach into ethnic communities.

But in the October election, the Liberals swept many of Canada's most ethnically diverse ridings, raising questions about whether the Conservatives' efforts in that domain have now been reversed.

"Yes, we have won back those communities," McCallum said.

"But the election is now over and we have to work very hard to deliver on our commitments and to do things which those ridings and all Canadians will support."

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