With Syrian families now arriving, many wonder what’s next for Canadian immigration policy

At Jan. 8 welcome banquet for Syrian refugee families with Jan O'Brien, Queenie Choo, of SUCCESS, and five new friends.

At Jan. 8 welcome banquet for Syrian refugee families with Jan O’Brien, Queenie Choo, of SUCCESS, and five new friends.

The shocking news that some hate-filled individual had pepper-sprayed refugee Syrian men, women and children outside a welcoming banquet Jan. 8 at Vancouver’s Muslim Association of Canada Centre quickly overwhelmed the real story of that evening.

The real story was this: thousands of Syrian refugees, driven from their homes by a pitiless civil war, were sitting down for a community meal in their new home country, many after just a few days in Canada.

More than 80 refugee families were among the hundreds sitting down to eat at the MAC Centre on Kingsway. They were literally walking out of the headlines and into our city, where the overwhelming majority is welcoming them with open arms.

The City of Vancouver has long supported immigration and refugees, even contributing financially to the construction of the new Welcome House, operated by the Immigrant Services Society of BC at Broadway and Victoria Drive.

As I left for the banquet on the evening of Jan. 8, I met neighbours heading off to a meeting down the block to learn more about the Syrian family soon expected by a volunteer group in our district.

When I opened my e-mail the next morning, a friend on Pender Island was writing about the family of six they will soon welcome to their community.

Those dramatic community efforts – not the pepper spray – tell the real story. They confirm that Canadians support a fundamental change in our country’s attitude to immigration and settlement.

Will that change happen?

Around the dinner table on Jan. 8, where I sat with MPs Jenny Kwan and Don Davies, as well as SUCCESS CEO Queenie Choo, the answer was “it’s too early to say.”

Countless representatives of newcomer communities, whether driven here by war or by economic necessity, are anxious to find out.

The Trudeau government’s election commitment to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, driven by the momentum of an election campaign and by public opinion outraged by the crisis engulfing refugees in the Middle East, was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of Canadians.

But does it signal a fundamental shift in immigration policy?

Members of the Filipino community do not need to be reminded of the dramatic changes ushered in by the last government, which resulted in the vast expansion of the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

For many of these newcomers, there is no clear path to residency or citizenship. They are welcome to work, but must struggle to stay.

Will the new government reconsider these policies?

Will it consider the plight of refugees from other parts of the world – northern Africa, for example – where an entire generation has grown up in camps far from their home country and has little prospect of return?

These are difficult questions, but it is fair to ask them.

Canada has been built with the irreplaceable contribution of generations of immigrants. Too many of the last government’s changes created a second-class status for newcomers and put them at the mercy of employers.

Equally disturbing was the reduction of access to family reunification.

Canada’s annual goals for immigration are usually announced before the budget, now just eight weeks away.

Those goals, and the policies they reflect, will tell us whether or not the welcome arrival of the Syrian refugees is a one-time event or the signal for greater change.