OTTAWA – The federal government’s first airlift of Syrian refugees will arrive Thursday in Toronto, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday during question period in the House of Commons.
The Toronto flight is scheduled to arrive at 9:15 p.m. Global News has confirmed the prime minister will be there to greet the refugees personally.
A second plane is scheduled to arrive Saturday in Montreal. Some of them will take flights from Toronto and Montreal to destinations elsewhere in Canada.
That will bring a total of 300 out of a planned 10,000 Syrian refugees scheduled to be resettled in Canada over the next four weeks.
These first two flights will be on military aircraft. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a press release that commercial flights are expected to be used for subsequent airlifts in December.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau invited opposition leaders to join him in welcoming the refugees at Pearson Airport.
Syrian refugees have been arriving in Canada for months via commercial aircraft. But Thursday’s airlift represents the start of the ambitious (and subsequently scaled-down) resettlement program the Liberals promised during the election campaign.
WATCH: Highlights from Question Period on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
They originally promised to resettle 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees to Canada by year’s end, but were forced to spread the commitment over a longer time period because of the logistics involved. They also changed the plan so that 10,000 of the 25,000 are privately sponsored.
And while the federal government has promised these refugees will receive full health coverage, it has yet to reinstate the Interim Federal Health Program cut in 2012. No one from Citizenship and Immigration responded to a Global News query Wednesday as to when those cuts will be reversed.
By the end of February 2016, the government is itself hoping to resettle 15,000 refugees, to be initially spread among 36 different cities where agencies have agreements for resettlement services.
Roadblocks to getting the program off the ground have included getting the United Nations to find enough cases to refer to Canada for possible resettlement, technical hiccups regarding biometric screening equipment and diplomatic wrangling with governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over exit visas.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said Wednesday that a logjam with the government of Lebanon in particular has now been cleared, which should make it easier for visas to be allocated.
“Two days ago, we were very worried about this issue, but thankfully, the Government of Lebanon has responded very well, and we now have exit visas, certainly easily enough for the first two planes to come from that part of the world to Canada,” McCallum said.
But, that process could be slowed down anew following elections scheduled in that country for later this month.
WATCH: Global’s Mike Armstrong reports from a bus station in Amman, Jordan, where refugees get bused from to go to the refugee processing centre Canada has set up.
An election in Turkey earlier this year has been partially blamed for the slow start to refugee processing there and McCallum said it is unlikely that any refugees currently in Turkey will come to Canada by the end of the year.
The most progress is being made out of the government’s operations in Jordan, where hundreds of people a day are now being screened by security and health officers.
“We never put all our eggs in one basket,” McCallum said.
“We always had three countries with which we were working from the beginning, and if one country produces more, another may produce less, but putting the three together, we are certainly working very hard to realize our targets.”
The preliminary budget for the program is as much as $698 million. McCallum announced Wednesday that the resettlement agencies will be getting a $3.6 million boost to their budgets this year to cope with the influx of Syrians.
With files from The Canadian Press