By Robin Arthur
Canada stepped up to the plate, late 2015, as Europe grappled with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, brought about by the Syrian civil war.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told Touch BASE: “The former federal government (of Stephen Harper) wasn’t acting quickly. I even wrote a letter to former Minister Alexander at the time.” He said cities have to be on the front lines of any effort to settle refugees. “Halifax was the first in the country to take the initiative even before the elections.”
Mayor Savage says refugees must be given a chance to succeed. “So we introduced free transit passes, provided access to recreation and library resources, to settle them in quickly. This is not just a humanitarian effort. In the long run, it will grow the economy.”
Making a point about the challenges for the city, the Mayor observed:
“In the most dire of situations when, for example, the Vietnamese refugees came in the late seventies, later the Kosovars in the nineties, the city did not fail them. There are challenges,” he said.
“You can see it at the Chocolate Lake Hotel (the first landing for Syrian refugees), where settlement groups like ISANS (Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia) and other volunteers are doing a great job of finding housing close to schools; there are language challenges; the Syrians have large families. But we seek to do the right thing.”
Mayor Savage takes a pragmatic view of the situation and says the city is ready to handle another influx of refugees. “Halifax has hit a new high in population and the arrival of refugees is good for population growth.” He makes the point that population growth is tied up with economic sustainability.
“Almost a third of the population in Lebanon are refugees and Germany has taken well over a million Syrian refugees. So we can take more. The Province says we can.”
Mayor Savage , who is Co-Chair of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities says mayors from all of Canada’s big cities including Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal have been supportive and have reported great success in the settlement of refugees.
“I believe the original deadline for taking in 25,00 refugees was artificial. It’s important to do things right, rather than fast. It takes time to evaluate how the settlement process is shaping up before taking on more.”
Commenting on the fact that some Syrian refugees actually went to Halifax food banks and that coordinators at these food banks complained of being overstretched, Mayor Savage lamented the “urban myth that refugees are handed golden passports” when they come in.
“That’s not the case. It’s unfortunate that some Syrian refugees had to go to food banks….in fact it’s unfortunate that anyone should have to go to food banks,” he said.
The Mayor said he has met with large Syrian families—one in which the father and three of his kids were in wheel chairs. “But yet, I could see so much of optimism from them. It tells me that these people have the will to succeed.”
In a wide-ranging interview, the Mayor also fielded questions about people from war-torn countries bringing their rivalries to Canada.
“Taking the Trump-approach,” he said. “you assume the worst rather than the best in people. It’s natural that people take positions in a civil conflict. But we realize that people are fleeing from that.”
He said pointedly. “I come from Ireland, a country that has seen years of violence. But people fleeing a country tells you they’re looking for opportunity. Here there are young people hungry to go to school in a safe environment.”
Lastly, commenting on who is picking up the bill on the Syrian refugee settlement project, the Mayor said Ottawa would absorb the major costs. “The cost of screening and security, air transportation, or housing are something Ottawa would pay for. But the municipalities will incur costs as well – the costs of transportation, recreation and other settlement services. We like to think of this as a shared responsibility.”
“But costs are not everything,” he points out. “Its absolutely admirable that organizations like ISANS and other volunteers put in the time and effort to see the project through. That’s a lot.”
- By Arrangement with Touch BASE