Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau has responded to the death of a three-year-old Syrian boy by suggesting the child should have been living in Vancouver and on his way to school this week with his cousins.
“I do know that this family, father Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver, had been trying for months to get their family to come over,” Trudeau said. “That there was a path and a reason that these particular little boys should be right now preparing for the beginning of the school year in Vancouver with their cousins. Instead of reminding us all that Canada, over the past years, has failed to be the country that we like to imagine it to be.”
Images of the boy’s body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey have caught the world’s attention and brought the issue of Middle East refugees to the forefront of Canada’s October election.
The Ottawa Citizen reported that the boy in the photograph, Alan Kurdi, was part of a family that was trying to get to Canada with the help of relatives in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam. Their refugee application was denied in June. On September 2, the family was sailing for Greece when their boat sank of the coast of Turkey, leaving only the father to survive.
“I was trying to sponsor them, and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn’t get them out, and that is why they went in the boat," the Vancouver woman named Tima Kurdi told the Citizen. "I was even paying rent for them in Turkey, but it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there."
In Surrey this morning (September 3), Prime Minister Stephen Harper delayed a campaign appearance so that he could prepare to speak on the issue. Hours earlier, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander cancelled all campaign activities after it was reported New Westminster—Coquitlam NDP MP Fin Donnelly had “hand delivered” him the Kurdi’s refugee application before it was eventually rejected. (Update: According to CBC News, the Government of Canada claims it had not received a formal application from the Kurdi family but did reject an application filed on behalf of Alan's uncle, Mohammed.)
Reacting to news the family was trying to reach Canada, Trudeau said the boy and his five-year-old brother Ghalib, who also died in the accident along with their mother Rehan, should have been on their way to school this week with their cousins in Vancouver.
A reporter asked Trudeau what he thought of Alexander cancelling campaign activities. “Minister Alexander, we understand, has suspended his campaign as a candidate in order to, I guess, address the crisis more fully,” she said. “I wonder what your reaction is to that.”
Trudeau paused and appeared visibly angry as he delivered his response: “You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” he said. “You either have it or you don’t. And this government has ignored the pleas of Canadian NGOs, of opposition parties, and of the international community, that all believe that Canada should be doing more and should have been doing more.”
New Democrats leader Thomas Mulcair was asked similar questions at a separate campaign appearance.
“This morning, we see a little boy getting picked up on a beach,” he said. "As a dad and a grandfather, it is just unbearable that we are doing nothing. Canada has an obligation to act. And it would be too easy this morning to start assigning blame. Chris Alexander has a lot to answer for but that is not where we are right now. We are worried about how we got here. How the collective international response has been so defective. How Canada has failed so completely. The UN has asked us to immediately take in 10,000. Let’s do that. And then we can start from there. We can absolutely absorb that right away.”
“This is hard for everyone,” Mulcair continued. “It’s a failure. It is a failure by the international community, it is a failure for Canada. And it is too easy to start assigning blame. I want us to start concentrating on getting a result. It is the objective that we have to share. I don’t think that there is a Canadian waking up this morning and seeing those images who’s not saying, “Okay, enough. Let’s just start acting, now.”
Speaking in Surrey, Harper defended the Conservative government's record on refugees.
“Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world,” he said.