HALIFAX – Standing inside one of the country’s foremost symbols of its openness to the world – the so-called “Gateway to Canada” – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Sunday he’d consider airlifting Syrian refugees in order to fulfil his pledge to welcome 25,000 asylum seekers by Jan. 1.
Hundreds of boisterous supporters came to hear him speak at Halifax’s Pier 21, the former immigration depot that welcomed over one million immigrants and refugees between 1928 and 1971.
“For me, it’s always a humbling and an incredibly deep privilege to be able to stand here at Pier 21,” he said on a stage overlooking the Halifax port.
“It’s a place that touches me deeply.”
Trudeau defended his promise to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria by year’s end – more than the Conservatives or the NDP have promised to do – by saying all that’s standing in the way is political will.
He said the Conservatives’ announcement Saturday that they would cancel the requirement refugees first be designated as such by the United Nations before applying for asylum in Canada as “a sudden and convenient change of heart during an election campaign.”
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Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said that while security screening will remain the government’s priority, his government will issue thousands more visas by the end of the year to people fleeing the sectarian conflict and civil war in Syria.
Trudeau dismissed suggestions his plan would compromise Canadians’ security as many of those seeking refuge in Europe and North America are coming from a territory controlled or affected by the violence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whose leaders openly call for terrorist attacks on Canadian soil.
“No one is suggesting we should put aside security in order to (bring in refugees),” he told the crowd.
People fleeing Syria can be properly assessed by employing more case workers, increasing screening capacity and “looking at the possibility of airlifts,” Trudeau said.
The choice to talk about refugees at Pier 21 is fitting, considering the role it played for decades in welcoming the tired and needy from across the world.
Roughly 200,000 refugees from the Second World War – many of them Holocaust survivors – travelled to Canada between 1946 and 1952, often through the doors of Pier 21, which has since been turned into an immigration museum.
Pier 21 was also the first point of contact in Canada for many of the 50,000 Hungarian refugees the country accepted after that country’s uprising against the Soviets in 1956.
Canada welcomed as many as 35,000 Hungarian refugees during a one-month period that year.
“The fact that (Conservative Leader Stephen Harper) has been talking about security as an impediment to doing this is quite frankly a distraction from a lack of political will to get it done,” he said to strong applause.
The party also released new English and French-language ads on Sunday on television and social media.
Trudeau later travelled to St. John’s, N.L., on Sunday evening for a rally with supporters.