By Richard Forbes.

The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM) convened in a roomy Rideau committee room at 1 Wellington Street this week to discuss the refugee processing of vulnerable minorities from Syria and Iraq. But what began as yet another cheap opportunity for the Tories to paint the new government as deaf to the flight of Yazidis and Christians, quickly unraveled into an uncomfortable trip down memory lane for the opposition; one which they may regret now, no doubt.

This painful exhumation of the former administration’s closet was led, foot in mouth, by Michelle Rempel. Rempel, a rising social media savvy star in the Tory ranks, took to Twitter to lop a storm of tweets towards the Liberals; chastising them, first and foremost, for not prioritizing Yazidis in the Syrian region in their resettlement efforts. Yazidis, of course, being targets of ISIL in an alleged genocide. In a similar vein, she called the Liberals out for practicing cruel neglect and partisanship, dismissing evidence of a genocide – teetering oh so perilously towards grandstanding with each appeal to the country’s better angels.

Have a heart, the MP told us, coolly shaking her left fist in disapproval, while her right was occupied by a new level of Pokemon Go.

Of course, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has already said the prioritizing of vulnerable minorities – beyond the prioritizing the UNHRC has already adopted – is unnecessary; this is because minorities referred for resettlement are already in refugee camps. The threat posed to vulnerable religious minorities like Yazidis from ISIS is far less in refugee camps than it would be if they were simply apart of the general population. Thus, discriminating between refugees based on their faith delays processing needlessly. The UNHRC have said resettlement programmes instead ought to be “needs‐based, non‐discriminatory and achieve successful integration outcomes.”

But even still, what should have been an easy political ‘win’ for Rempel soon became a topic of deep embarrassment for the Tories as the committee’s findings emerged and the week continued. And on it went. From bad to worse to incorrigibly hypocritical. The findings would push Rempel among others into damage control over social media to defend the Harper administration’s record. The ensuant trouble will probably leave many a conservative wondering why they hadn’t just left the blasted subject unearthed and forgotten. Rather than letting sleeping dogs lie this week, the opposition appeared determined to kick them awake; bite marks be damned.

A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo, stay under a shelter during a rainy day on 8 March 2014 at Uskudar, Istanbul. More than 136,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, and millions more have fled their homes. (Photo: Bulent Kilic, AFP, Getty Images.)

Opening the committee was chair Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who set the urgency of the meeting by recalling past acts of genocide. “As of consequence of ongoing threats of crimes against humanity,” Wrzesnewskyj told the committee in his opening statement, “there are vulnerable minorities in urgent need of sanctuary.”

The chair then introduced “Mr. Robert Manicom” from Citizenship and Immigration, which prompted a slow furrowing of Robert Orr‘s brow, so clear it was observable from outer space, before he broke out into a bated smile. Recognizing his mistake, the chair intervened hurriedly: “I’d like to make a correction, my notes had said Mr. Manicom, but clearly we have Mr. Orr before us,” he said, his hand stretched out towards the big fat pearly A4 labeled ‘ROBERT ORR’ – now blushing with an awkward smile. Orr began his seven minute introduction, noting that he was in fact, Robert Orr, the assistant deputy minister for operations at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The committee would follow from there into a heated legal drama as MPs took Immigration Canada to task for …well, following usual policy basically.

Immigration Canada’s officials would spend the majority of their time during the panel reminding MPs that imposing a specific prioritization of certain groups is not typically how Canada operates, rather Canada takes its priorities from the UNHCR on who to resettle, because the UNHCR is best positioned to consider refugee resettlements in a “global context”. The contrast here marks a difference between those who want Canada to act independently in resettling those it sees fit, and those who would prefer Canada cooperate with a central institution like the UNHCR to resettle who the UNHCR sees fit. The tradeoff for the better global organization of refugee processing is, of course, less national autonomy in the planning of its resettlements.

When pressed on the Harper government’s previous policy of prioritizing refugees, Orr downplayed the policy, saying the Yazidis had never been specifically prioritized by the federal government, in fact, nor had any explicit religious minority.

“There was no, um, no specific group put on the um, list,” said the assistant deputy minister reluctantly. When pressed to described who the ‘areas of focus’ were instead, the assistant deputy minister said: “Um, there were a number of things, but in general it spoke of women at risk, it spoke of LBGTI, it spoke about minority groups,” he said, adding, “um it was quite generic in the sorts of elements it raised.”

A Liberal MP would ask if there was any attempt to track how many number of Yazidi women came into Canada in 2015. The answer was again, a reluctant “no,” the officials, now shaking their heads. Then another sharp “no,” when asked if there was any specific attempt to bring Yazidis out of Iraq.

With each “no,” the Tory MPs could be forgiven for sitting lower in their seats. They had staked their criticism of the Liberals on the assumption their party would have prioritized the resettlement of Yazidis from Iraq and Syria; but now we know they clearly hadn’t.

The Conservatives knew just as well then as it knows now that Yazidis were a vulnerable group in Iraq and Syria but they had not attempted then to prioritize their resettlement into Canada – at least not through official government channels. Which is what makes it all the more curious what the hell it was the Harper government was doing when it was prioritizing refugees referred from the UNHCR in the spring of 2015 without much more than a ‘general’ set of criteria; the mystery surrounding that time frame of events is abuzz with rumours and serious allegations which infamously appeared during last fall’s election and are now reemerging once more to haunt the opposition.

Stephen Harper
Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to the media during a campaign stop Montreal Que., on  3 October 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Some evidence suggests that rather than ‘prioritizing’ vulnerable minorities, what the Harper government was really up to in 2015 was far less admirable: it was stalling the processing of Muslim refugees under the pretense of a ‘security audit.’

We first learnt of these rumours when they broke October last year – unnamed sources suggested the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had stalled the processing of government sponsored Syrian refugee cases for several weeks in June to ensure its ‘new policies’ were being followed – that audit was reportedly conducted through the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with exempt staff including the Prime Minister unilaterally approving refugees on a case by case basis. Those explosive allegations would follow the Prime Minister along the election trail as he passionately denied his office’s involvement. Lisa Raitt, now finance critic, would tell CTV that she couldn’t say who conducted the audit, except to say it hadn’t been the PMO. The rumours encapsulated the Harper administration’s habit of micro-managing and politicizing administrative policy, but this time it carried the blood of Syrian refugees on its hands. For many, it was a failure of judgment beyond the pale.

Even after all of these months, we still don’t know who conducted the audit, but there are many reasons to question what the purpose of the audit was. If the audit was a ‘security’ review (as has been suggested), why did it only include government-sponsored refugees and not privately sponsored refugees (which were mostly Christian)? And if the audit was a ‘procedural’ review, looking at whether Immigration Canada was ‘prioritizing’ refugees along the lines its government had proposed; why was it necessary to halt the processing of refugees from a war-torn country for several weeks?

The evidence, including the new revelations that the Harper government was not tracking specific minorities referred, paints a contradicting story. For starters, it was already well known and on the public record, the Harper administration was pushing for refugee resettlements to go through private channels (mostly churches) rather than the UNHCR, so Canada could “zero in” selectively on Christians (as former immigration minister Chris Alexander said) which effectively left Muslims in Syria and Iraq in a lurch without support from Canada. But the Canadian Press also has released data this past week from the PM’s controversial audit which they recovered via an access to information request; those numbers suggest of the some 546 landed Syrian refugees audited, the “vast majority” were Sunni Muslim. Only three were Yazidi and the other three dozen, Christian. This all, once again, suggests the point of the audit was merely to kill the processing of Muslim refugees into Canada without explicitly contravening UNHRC policy.


Despite our best efforts, there are still a lot of question marks surrounding last year’s audit.

For that reason, it would be in the best interests of the country for the government to call a royal commission immediately to investigate any political interference the Harper government may have had on the processing and acceptance of Muslim refugees up to and including the Syrian civil war. Through a commission, we could dispel any mysteries overshadowing the events that took place last year and address any political impropriety that may have occurred from within the PMO.

Indeed, out of all of the allegations the previous government faced – the bad accounting, the lack of transparency, the contempt for process – the suggestion the Conservatives may have been haphazardly dismissing referrals from the UNHCR because the applicants were Muslims marked the darkest and most damning of claims Stephen Harper faced. One would hope even the most partisan of Tory supporters would regard the work of Immigration Canada as too important to be meddled and tampered with for whatever sullied, tired stillborn of a justification the PMO might have had to hold people back at the floodgates because they practiced the wrong religion. Electioneering? Petty politics? Fear? There’s no excuse for an unwarranted political interruption in the refugee resettlement of Syrian refugees that would be worth a guiltless night’s sleep.

We don’t know if the claims are true, but if a commission found them to be, it would be a sad day for Canada and an acknowledgment our government discriminated against Muslim refugees in a way that was islamophobic, that was divorced from international policy, that put people’s lives at risk and was ultimately wrong and deeply embarrassing. A failure on the part of Liberals now to investigate any wrongdoings committed by the previous administration would undermine their commitment to Syrian refugees and international justice; if they want their pledge to be engaged international partners with the United Nations to be worth more than the paper it was written on, they must investigate what happened last year behind closed doors. Leadership begins at home.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

3 thoughts on “The worst of Harper’s legacy comes back to haunt Tories

  1. Re: last paragraph. It seems to me that governments engaging in witch-hunts, as is the American means by which to solicit partisan favour, is a bad idea. It increases polarization and decreases the ability of any government to govern. I think those voters who care (and the rest wouldn’t anyway) have realized by now that the Harper government was anti-Muslim and that it was using its powers to advance that sentiment, albeit sneakily. Recall the Office for Religious Freedom, for example, which was clearly a pro-Christian effort, the Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch-line, and the anti-niqab debacle – all of which, especially the last two, painted the picture the electorate received of the Harper government’s views on Muslims – or on its willingness to engage in dog-whistle politics.


    1. I would hope a royal commission would be about rehabilitating the role the PMO has (or made had) in Canada’s immigration process, making sure grievances can be aired – rather than the kind of ‘witch hunt’ and ‘gotcha politics’ we saw with, say, the Gomery Commission. The commission would need to be far more independent and removed from political ambitions than Gomery was. But I take your point, however, Diane. Merci.


  2. I agree with Diane. A Royal Commission would be un-, and possibly counter-productive at this point. Nationally the Conservatives have ~30% of the popular vote guaranteed, and most are Trump-type supporters who are supportive of anti-Muslim policies from the previous government. A better move would be to highlight the success that our ‘new’ immigration policy is having (subtly contrasted with the former), and prepare for the inevitable “I told you so” rhetoric from the white supremacists / Conservative Party supporters and Party hopefuls after the next terrorist attack on Canadian soil, which is inevitable. Promoting and exhibiting a hopefully much-improved refugee relief and support funding policy oversees (especially for refugee camps) would also be a good follow-up to the accusations and finger-pointing of Rempel, Ambrose and Kenney.


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