OTTAWA — The Conservative government says it will speed up the processing of Syrian refugee applications in an effort to issue "thousands more" visas before the end of this year.
Syrians fleeing the civil war will no longer have to prove they are convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency, but will be presumed to be refugees by Canadian authorities for the purposes of vetting their applications.
The announcement came Saturday afternoon from Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration, in his east Toronto riding.
Alexander said the government is "accelerating our existing commitment" to refugee resettlement, not increasing the actual target numbers.
The government will also appoint a special co-ordinator to handle the overall file of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, more than double the number of staff handling sponsorship applications and will expand the categories of refugees eligible for temporary government income assistance.
"Security screening will remain the top priority," said Alexander, while assuring all medical screening and background screening will continue.
Earlier Saturday, Stephen Harper announced in a press release that a re-elected Conservative government would create something called a "Maple Leaf" designation, to be awarded to no more than five to seven individuals per year.
The release from the prime minister says new Canadians are great ambassadors, while noting that one in five Canadians — some 6.8 million — are foreign born.
Harper created something of a social media storm during an election leaders' debate Thursday in Calgary when he referred to "old stock" Canadians while defending his government's cuts to refugee health care. New Democrats and Liberals jumped on the comment, alleging Harper is dividing Canadians by suggesting citizens can be characterized in separate categories.
"We're lucky to have millions of people who come to Canada to build a new life and also maintain close ties with their birth country," Harper said in Saturday's news release.
"In a global economy, we have an opportunity to draw on the connections that new Canadians have to build social, cultural and economic ties to developing economies."
The Conservative party said in a background release that recipients of the proposed award must have "a track record of promoting strong links between Canada and their home country as exemplified by business investment, arts and cultural exchanges, and international development work."
Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are back out on the campaign trail Sunday after a down day Saturday to regroup.
The three major parties are locked in a statistical dead heat in public opinion surveys with two more leaders' debates — one in French in Montreal and a second on foreign affairs in Toronto — scheduled over the next eight days.
Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 19.
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