Refugee Crisis: A Turning Point in the Campaign?

It can take one incident, made very public, to shift public opinion during an election period. Before last week’s photo of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy and the reports that his family had been hoping to eventually migrate to Canada, the country’s refugee policy was not an election issue.

That photo encapsulated the refugee crisis and opened the door to questions from Canadians about our own response to this human catastrophe. It also triggered a much-publicized grilling of Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Christopher Alexander, about what has been perceived as Canada’s weak attempt to help. The exchange between CBC’s Rosemary Barton and Minister Alexander, followed by Prime Minister Harper’s public statements about the Syrian boy, appeared haphazard and defensive. The crux of Harper’s statement, to “maintain the fight against ISIS…the root cause of the problem” and not necessarily focus on increasing the intake of refugees, highlighted his own ideology and tried to preserve the backing of his staunchest supporters.

Before looking further at how the refugee issue may have shifted the election campaign, it is helpful to look at the Syrian crisis and Canada’s current policies on the issue.

Approximately 12,000 refugees come to Canada annually. In the past, Canada has been known to accept vast numbers of refugees, for example, 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos came to Canada after the Vietnam War. More than 30,000 Hungarian refugees came after the uprising in 1956, and 40,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived after World War II. Canada has also resettled more than 20,000 Iraqis since 2009.

How does Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis stack up when compared to other countries? Syria’s surrounding countries have taken on many displaced civilians, while many European countries, predominantly Germany, have accepted and continue to accept a vast amount of Syrian refugees.


Refugee map 


Since the release of the photo of the Syrian boy, the current refugee system in Canada has been under a microscope. In 2013, the government committed to bringing in 1300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014; a commitment fulfilled in March 2015. Why the delay? Since 2012, migrants who want to escape their country and come to Canada as a refugee must go to visa offices abroad to have their applications reviewed – a process that can take months sometimes years to complete. Furthermore, refugees must be certified as such by a United Nations agency. This is different than in previous mass displacements of people where Canada seemed to be able to accept large groups of refugees quickly. The government also created the “group of five” sponsorship system, which refers to a required group of at least five adult Canadians who are willing to sponsor a refugee family and provide complete emotional and financial support. To sponsor a family of four for one year is estimated to be approximately $27,000. In government-sponsored situations, most living expenses are paid for by the federal government.

Canada’s refugee policy was not widely discussed by the public prior to the last week’s tragic event. Harper’s initial statements regarding the tragedy, the apparent bureaucratic hurdles it takes to enter Canada as a refugee, and the government’s commitments have been criticized by many as heartless and inadequate for a country once known for its humanitarian response.

It is only natural that when the leader of the governing party is under attack for not being sensitive enough, opposition parties jump at the chance to show they are compassionate and share the same values as many Canadians.

To further contrast Harper’s view that Canada’s response to the crisis is sufficient, almost all provinces and many municipalities have granted financial support to upwards of $1 million to help various organizations involved in private refugee sponsorships.

What are the parties pledging when it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis?


 Conservative1    Liberal1

  • Continue the military mission against ISIS
  • Resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees over the next four years (40% sponsored by government, 60% sponsored by private groups), on top of the 10,000 Syrians already committed to in January 2015



  • Focus on diplomacy and aid and pull troops out of Syria and Iraq
  • Loosen rules for Syrian refugees
  • Resettle an additional 10,000 government-sponsored refugees by end of 2015
  • Increase the number of government sponsored Syrian refugees by 9000 per year for the next four years

  • Trudeau has called for a meeting between federal party leaders
  • Resettle 25,000 government-sponsored refugees and work with private sponsors to accept more
  • Put $100 million into refugee processing and provide another $100 million to UNHCR for relief work in Syria



After reviewing the three main parties’ stances on what Canada needs to do to help those impacted by the civil war in Syria, which one is most aligned with the general public? According to a recent poll done by the Angus Reid Institute, overall, 70% of Canadians say Canada has a role to play in the migrant crisis. However, only 54% say the number of refugees Canada takes in should increase (39% intend to vote Conservative, while 62% intend to vote either Liberal or NDP). The poll also shows that 37% of Conservatives believe these refugees are “bogus” and either criminals or opportunists. On the other hand, only 14% and 15% of Liberal and NDP supporters (respectively) believe this statement. When asked how many refugees Canada should sponsor and resettle over the next year, only 23% of Conservative supporters indicated the number should be more than 10,000, while 49% of Liberals and 46% of NDP supporters said the same thing. Is this an issue that voters may consider when trying to decide which party to vote for on October 19? Has this impacted the national polling numbers at all?

It is difficult to look at the polls and pinpoint exactly what has caused the rise or fall in support each party has received over the past six weeks. However, as Global’s recent Election Update indicated, the Conservatives have been dropping one percentage for the past three weeks. Currently, the Conservatives are sitting at 26%, while the NDP have maintained support around the 32% mark and the Liberals’ support base has started to climb, with the Party currently at 31.7%.

Prime Minister Harper’s response to the migrant crisis is generally in tune with the opinion of his supporters, however he is not meeting the expectations of the majority of Canadians. It’s not that he’s not doing anything to help these people, but perhaps it’s that it’s not being done fast enough.. On the other hand, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have been quick to fill the roles of compassionate candidates. There is still time for the Conservatives to try and turn the criticism around, but it remains to be seen how the three main parties will manage this issue in the hearts of voters.