POLITICS

Gov. Gen. David Johnston: Arrival Of Syrian Refugees A 'Defining Moment'

12/01/2015 10:41 EST | Updated 12/02/2015 10:59 EST

OTTAWA — Gov. Gen. David Johnston issued a rallying cry Tuesday for Canadians to welcome refugees who are fleeing the conflict in Syria, calling Canada's response to the crisis a "defining moment" for the country.

Johnston hosted a forum on refugees that included federal, provincial and municipal political leaders as well as heads of business organizations and aid groups, aimed at better co-ordinating efforts to deal with the impending influx of 25,000 refugees.

"This is a defining moment for Canada, a defining moment for all of us," Johnston told the gathering.

"And it's even more than that. It's an opportunity ... to re-imagine how we take care of the most marginalized and vulnerable among us."

david johnston

Governor General and Commander-in Chief David Johnston salutes as he prepares to inspect The Ceremonial Guard on the grounds of Rideau Hall. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)

Immigration Minister John McCallum told a morning panel at the forum that he's concerned the current level of enthusiasm among Canadians for bringing in refugees will be lost if governments and aid organizations don't properly communicate.

"There's nothing that will turn the momentum off more than if people want to help, and they get no answer at the other end of the phone or they don't know who to phone," said McCallum.

"There is a momentum today. Whether there will be two weeks from today is something we can't take for granted, and we have to work on."

McCallum said one thing that must be a priority is ensuring that Canadians know where to turn when they are offering to help out.

Johnston said he hopes Canadians will extend a "warm welcome" to the many Syrian refugees who will be arriving by the end of February, calling the crisis both a challenge and an opportunity.

"It's an opportunity ... to re-imagine how we take care of the most marginalized and vulnerable among us."

If done right, the response to the Syrian refugee crisis could be used as a model for how to deal with future humanitarian situations, said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who also took part in the day's first panel.

"We need to take advantage of this opportunity, not only to take care of this crisis, but to make sure that, on an ongoing basis, that Canada is ready to react to the many crises that are happening ... across the world," he said.

To keep Canadians updated on how well refugees are being settled, McCallum said he and other federal officials will hold weekly briefings on the resettlement project, beginning Wednesday.

The minister also repeated his plea for private individuals and businesses to step forward and help with housing the refugees, and eventually helping them find jobs.

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