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The Liberal Plan for Resettling Syrian Refugees in Canada: The Justificatory Narrative and Counter-Narrative.


The Syrian refugee crisis was and remained an issue of major interest for several years. Indeed in 2015 it received so much media coverage that Canadian media editors chose it as the country's news story of the year (Levitz 2015). A substantial proportion of that media coverage was devoted to various aspects of that crisis and the plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 as proposed by the Liberal Party before the 2015 federal election, and the efforts of the newly elected Liberal government to implement it after that election.

In addition to the substantial proportion of attention devoted to various aspects of that crisis and that plan by the media, some attention has also been devoted to it in the academic literature. Most of the published and unpublished academic literature has focused either on the policy and politics of the resettlement of that plan or on the actual media coverage and media narrative of that plan. In the case of literature focused primarily on the policy and politics, it includes, for example, a journal article that examines the causes and consequences of Canada's resettlement of Syrian refugees, with a special focus on the political dynamics surrounding it (McMurdo 2016), and an innovative web-archive devoted to various aspects of the resettlement of Syrian refugees, including the political debates (Canefe, Abu-Ghazaleh and Lelacheur 2018). In the case of publications devoted primarily to analyzing media coverage and media narratives of that crisis and resettlement plan, these include several published and unpublished works. Notable published works include one that focused exclusively on how the Canadian print media framed the crisis from 2012 to 2016 (Wallace 2018,207), and another that focused on a comparison of media framing of Syrian refugees in Canada and Germany (Winter, Patzelt and Beauregard 2018). Similarly, in the case of unpublished works, this includes a research centre working paper that provided a thematic content analysis of the Canadian media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis (Tysska, Blower, DeBoer, Kawai and Walcott 2017), and another that focused on a comparison of media coverage in Canada and the United Stated (Allwright 2018).

The overarching purpose of this article is to contribute to that literature by examining the key features and determinants of several interrelated aspects of the Liberal Party's proposed plan to resettle 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees prior to the end of 2015, and the Liberal government's efforts after the 2015 election to implement that plan, albeit with some modifications. The central objective is to examine the key features and determinants of the following four interrelated aspects of that plan prior to and after the 2015 election: (a) the genesis and evolution of the plan; (b) the composition and thematic thrusts of the justificatory narrative for the plan; (c) the composition and thematic thrusts of the justificatory counter-narrative that critiqued both the Liberal plan and its justificatory narrative; and (d) the degree of continuity and change to public opinion regarding the Liberal plan in its original and modified form while it was being implemented. Each of these four aspects of the Liberal plan is discussed, in turn, in subsequent sections of this article.

Having stated the purpose and objectives of this article, an important caveat is in order here to preclude any confusion. This article examines a particular narrative and counter-narrative articulated or, if you will, echoed by the mainstream mass media. Issues regarding the roles of media-based actors or factors in the construction of the narrative or counter-narrative articulated by the media are beyond the scope of this article. In short, this is primarily an article on what might be best described as a media articulated, reflected, echoed and possibly even framed narratives (Greussing and Boomgaarden 2017) rather than media-constructed narratives as postulated by theories of the roles of the media in narrative construction. For analytical purposes, we distinguish between basic framing and actual construction as postulated by theories of social constructivism. Our position is based on the pragmatics of the challenges of establishing causality and also on the belief that in a relatively liberal democratic society with a relatively free press, generally the prevailing narratives and counter-narratives are not produced by a single state or societal entity within the polity. Our position is that what are referred to as 'media narratives' or 'narratives articulated by the media' are complex constructs that emerge from the relatively random aggregation of a multitude of discreet ideas and positions advanced by a wide range of state and societal entities and interests. Consequently, the narrative construction process may be explained more accurately by chaos theory, than any other existing theory of narrative construction or policy formulation, and particularly ones which postulate that there is a singular primary agent or force such as the mass media that constructs the narratives and counter-narratives.

The focus on the narrative and counter-narrative regarding the Liberal resettlement plan constitutes an examination of the political discourse of that plan. By political discourse we mean a process centred on the communication of ideas of political situations, policy options, or intergroup relations and identities articulated by anyone within the polity (e.g., political parties, governments, and media) as important elements of particular political strategies (Chadwick 2000, 289; Fischer 2003; Hynie 2018; Van Dijk 1997). Such discourses entail political narratives and counter-narratives related to, among other things, one or more public policies.

Narratives and counter-narratives are conceptualized as positional explanations or arguments regarding political and policy phenomenon, which may be constructed or articulated either in support of or in opposition to particular political or policy proposals or initiatives for partisan or non-partisan political purposes (Shenhav 2006). Invariably, narratives and counter-narratives are justificatory insofar as they are used to justify a particular political or policy position, proposal, decision or action within a polity.

Justificatory narratives are explanations or stories designed to justify political or policy proposals, decisions or actions both by their proponents and opponents. Moreover, they can be used to justify or rationalize either political or policy continuity or change. Despite differences in their precise purposes, invariably justificatory narratives have key components and themes that are, or at least attempt to be, persuasive (Crow and Jones 2018, 255; Forst 2017, 55). With this concept in mind, we postulate that the Liberal Party and Liberal government, as well as those who supported their Syrian refugee resettlement plan constructed and promulgated a justificatory narrative supportive of that plan. Similarly, those who opposed either that plan or that narrative in whole or in part constructed their justificatory counter-narrative. Moreover, we postulate that the justificatory narrative and the counter-narrative were articulated or, if you will, reflected or echoed in the mainstream mass media.

The examination of the evolution of the narrative and counter-narrative regarding the Liberal government's Syrian refugee resettlement plan is based primarily on three major sources of information: media coverage, polling data reported in the media, and our own perceptions and insights. In the case of media coverage, we examined the content of a selected sample of several dozen stories of current events that appeared in three major national newspapers, ten major local newspapers, and the three major television networks from July 2015 to June 2016. In the case of public opinion polls, we focused on those conducted by leading polling firms. In the case of our observations regarding the media coverage and the competing narrative and counter-narrative that are the focus of this paper, they are based on our recollections from witnessing the coverage of narrative and counter-narrative during the actual Syrian refugee resettlement initiative from 2015 to 2016, including the recollections spawned by reviewing the aforementioned selected sample of archived media stories.


Although the general tendency is to trace the genesis to the first week of September 2015, the foundations for the plan were being laid by a debate during the previous year regarding whether Canada's Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have been doing more to support and resettle Syrian refugees (Friesen, Bailey and Galloway 2015; Kabawat 2015; Khouri 2014; Khouri and Mourani 2014). During the first week of September 2015 the.Liberal Party made the resettlement of Syrian refugees a major component of its electoral platform (Liberal Party of Canada 2015). It did so just a few days after the extensive media coverage of the death of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned when the boat full of refugees capsized and whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach. That tragedy fostered a substantial degree of empathy, sympathy, sadness, and anger both in Canada and in other countries (Davis 2015; Levitz 2016a). It also contributed to calls for the Canadian government to be generous and efficient in resettling Syrian refugees (CCR 2015a; CCR 2015b).

Apart from any non-partisan considerations, the Liberal Party used the issue for partisan purposes during that election campaign. In effect, it found a wedge issue, albeit not one with highly predictable electoral benefits given changing economic and political contexts. Nevertheless, it gambled that this was a surrogate wedge issue that could help in its efforts to position itself as more progressive and proactive than the Conservative Party, and possibly also the New Democratic Party not only on migration issues but also on other issues. The media coverage during the election campaign of the Liberal Party's partisan strategy paid off in at least one respect--a media story indicated that, in terms of the number of refugees and the financial resources that would be devoted to their resettlement, the Liberal Party had the most generous plan followed by the NDP with the second most generous plan, and the Conservative Party with the least generous plan (Berthiaume 2015; Dehaas 2015a; Friesen, Bailey and Galloway 2015; Goldman 2015; Kennedy 2015; Levitz 2016a; Whittington 2015).

Consequently, the Liberal Party announced its plan to resettle 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, and more thereafter through a combination of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees. The most notable elements of the plan were the following: resettling 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 (Dehaas 2015a); facilitating the efforts of the private sector to resettle even more Syrian refugees; spending $100 million for that fiscal year and another $150 million thereafter for the federal government and private sponsors to resettle them as well as other refugees more efficiently and effectively; sending many more immigration and security officials abroad to screen them; and sending Canadian military planes to airlift as many Syrian refugees as possible starting by December 1, 2015 (Levitz 2016a).

Approximately three weeks after the Liberal government launched the Syrian resettlement plan, it was constrained to revise it because it realized that, as had been suggested by critics and skeptics, it could not meet its target of resettling 25,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of the year. Consequently, it indicated that although only 10,000 would be resettled by the end of the year, by that time it would identify the remaining 15,000 who would be resettled by the end of February 2016. It also indicated that to reach the target of the 25,000 it would resettle a combination of government-assisted, privately sponsored, and blended visa office-referred refugees. Moreover, it would increase the amount of funds for resettlement of these refugees from $250 million over two years as it had promised in its election platform to $678 million over six years (Harris 2015).

The plan remained essentially unchanged until the goal to resettle 25,000 Syrian Then the Liberal government made a commitment to continue resettling a substantial number of Syrian refugees. Ultimately, however, it only resettled an additional 15,000 during the subsequent twelve months (Canada 2017).


To reiterate, this section provides an overview of the justificatory narrative regarding the Liberal government's Syrian refugee resettlement articulated by the mainstream mass media both prior to and after the 2015 federal election. Toward that end, it provides an overview of three major components of that narrative, namely the national obligations, national interests, and national capacities.

Canada's National Obligations

The first major component of the progressive and proactive justificatory narrative articulated by the mainstream mass media before and after the 2015 election focused on Canada's national obligations to contribute to the resettlement of any refugees, including Syrian refugees. The central theme of this component of the narrative was that Canada had legal, political and moral obligations to facilitate the resettlement of refugees including those from Syria.

In the case of legal obligations, the justificatory narrative postulated that Canada had such obligations under international law and national law. It suggested that under international law Canada's legal obligations stemmed from key provisions in several international protocols including Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention (Keung 2016a), the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (George 2012). The justificatory narrative also indicated that under national law Canada's legal obligations stemmed from the provisions in the Refugee Protection Act of 2002, which explicitly acknowledged and affirmed Canada's international legal obligations pursuant to the aforementioned international protocols (George 2012). Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2002, like the Immigration Act of 1976 which it supplanted, is based on the fundamental principles of non-discrimination, family reunion, and humanitarian concerns for refugees, as well as the promotion of Canada's social, economic, demographic and cultural goals (George 2012; Keung 2016b).

The justificatory narrative also postulated that Canada had political and moral obligations for resettling refugees. More specifically, it postulated that its political obligation was assisting other countries to cope with the pressures of resettling very large numbers of refugees. In the case of Syrian refugees, Canada was obligated to assist Syria's neighbouring countries that were overburdened with large numbers of those refugees. This included Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as several European countries. In explaining the magnitude of the burden on those countries, the media noted that the approximately 4.5 million Syrian refugees living outside Syria registered with the UNHCR, constituted the largest number of displaced persons from one country who registered with the UNHCR since 1992 when the Afghanistan civil war produced 4.6 million registered refugees (UNHRC 2018).

In the case of moral obligations, the justificatory narrative suggested that, pursuant to a universal moral code, Canada was obligated to resettle and assist refugees through various means. The narrative also suggested that Canada's moral obligations were particularly significant in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis because it involved an exceptionally large number of people, many of whom were traumatized by the horrors of the civil war and living in squalid conditions within overcrowded refugee camps (Kabawat 2015). Moreover, it was morally obligated to resettle and assist as many refugees as possible through various means given its absorptive, organizational, and securitization capacities because most, if not all of those who were seeking refuge were bona-fide refugees as defined by the United Nations Convention on Refugees, rather than opportunistic economic migrants. The notion that most, if not all, Syrian refugees were bona-fide refugees was underscored in media coverage that focused on the statements of notable officials and advocates such as the federal minister responsible for immigration, Quebec's minister responsible for immigration, Ontario's health minister, and a notable German refugee advocate (Black 2015; Woods, Benzie and Boutilier 2015). Invariably such government officials and advocates asserted that most, if not all, Syrian refugees destined to Canada were indeed the bona-fide refugee who had been screened by UNHR officials and Canadian immigration officials.

Canada's National Interests

The second major component of the justificatory narrative articulated by the mainstream mass media focused on Canada's national interests. The two key interests articulated most of the time were economic interests and political interests.

The focus of the economic interests was on Canada's continuing need to increase the size of its workforce and ensure it had the skill sets needed at this juncture in history. While this could have been done through the other immigration programs, and by accepting a larger number of refugees from other parts of the world, responding to the mounting pressures and problems of resettling Syrian refugees in Europe seemed to be most prudent in deriving economic benefits while at the same time contributing to a crisis that was receiving extensive media coverage and profile in many countries within and beyond Europe.

The focus on the political interests was on Canada's need to re-establish and consolidate its reputation and standing in the world as a generous contributor to managing the challenges of refugee resettlement. The media narrative indicated that increasing the number of refugees it resettled and supported was imperative for Canada in advancing its standing within the international community as a model champion of refugees because, contrary to what many Canadians and permanent residents believed, Canada had been losing ground both in the ranking of countries that resettled most refugees and also as a generous supporter of refugee resettlement either in total numbers or even on a per capita basis. In showing that Canada was not as generous as many assumed, the media pointed out that on a per capita basis it was actually among the laggards. For example, an article titled "Canada can and should do better on Syrian refugees," stated that on a per capita basis it occupied the 41st position globally, and argued that the country should do more for this vulnerable population (Goldman 2015). This became another of the increasingly more frequent critiques levelled against Canadians and their governments not only for overestimating the country's contribution to collective global initiatives related to migration and peacekeeping, but also for taking more credit than warranted by Canada's actual contributions. The mainstream mass media noted that it was in Canada's national political interest not to rest on its laurels of the laudable humanitarian legacy of admitting many refugees dating back to the 1970s. Notable examples of such an argument are found in some feature articles (Keung 2016a; Keung 2016b) and editorials (Vancouver Sun 2015a; Vancouver Sun 2015b). In profiling Canada's laudable legacy such articles and editorials profiled Canada's major refugee resettlement initiatives since 1970. In underscoring Canada's laudable legacy of recent decades in resettling refugees, some of the media coverage also noted that in 1986 'the people of Canada' received the UN Nansen Medal, an award given to individuals or groups for excellence in service to refugees, for their contribution to the resettlement of a relatively large number of refugees from South East Asia (Chapman 2014, 2; Keung 2016b).

Canada's National Capacity

The third major component of the justificatory narrative articulated by the mainstream mass media focused on Canada's capacity to resettle a relatively large number of Syrian refugees. This included the absorptive capacity, the organizational capacity, and the securitization capacity. The central theme of the justificatory narrative was that Canada had the requisite capacity in each of those three facets of its national capacity.

Absorptive capacity refers to Canada's ability to admit and resettle refugees as well as other newcomers without creating any major problems either for them or for the country. (Passaris 1979). For all intents and purposes of this article, absorptive capacity has three spheres, namely the political, economic, and social spheres. Whereas political absorptive capacity refers to the ability of the political system to resettle refugees without any major political disruptions or conflagration, and economic absorptive capacity refers to Canada's ability to accommodate the economic integration of the refugees in various communities, social absorptive capacity refers to Canada's ability to accommodate the social integration within various communities.

Organizational capacity refers to Canada's ability to provide the requisite governmental and non-governmental organizational resources needed to resettle the refugees. This includes the human and financial resources, as well as the various types of logistical supports needed (e.g., reception centres, service centres, lodging, translation services, orientation services, educational services, and economic integration services, etcetera) for their settlement and integration.

Securitization capacity refers to Canada's ability to ensure that its national security is not breached and that it is not unduly vulnerable to unlawful acts ranging from minor crimes (e.g., petty theft) to major crimes (e.g., murder and terrorist acts). Although securitization is related to organizational capacity for a particular purpose, namely capacity to safeguard the safety and security of a polity, for our analytical purposes it is useful to list it as a distinct capacity (Roe 2012). The debate regarding Canada's capacity to resettle a large number of Syrian refugees emerged immediately following the media coverage regarding the death of Alan Kurdi at the start of September 2015 and intensified over time for several months thereafter (Davis 2015). The major protagonists in the debate from that point in time and for approximately the following six months were the three national major political parties, the Conservative government that was in power prior to the 2015 election and the Liberal government that was in power after that election, some provincial and municipal governments, and various community-based influential stakeholder organizations.

In summary, this section has provided an overview of the three major components of the justificatory narrative (i.e., national obligations, national interests, and national capacities) in support of the Liberal plan for resettling Syrian refugees in 2015. The objective in the next section is to provide an overview of the focus, substance and effect of the counter-narrative on the revision of the Liberal plan.


In addition to articulating a justificatory narrative that was supportive of the Liberal resettlement plan both prior to and after the 2015 federal election, the media also articulated a counter-narrative that critiqued both the Liberal plan and the corresponding justificatory narrative to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 articulated by the Liberal Party, the Liberal government and other proponents of that plan. We distinguish between the justificatory narrative and the plan itself because from a logical standpoint it is possible to accept or reject one and not the other.

Although the focus and substance of the counter-narrative remained relatively unchanged during the period that is the focus of this article, there was a change in its intensity and political traction both before and after the 2015 election. Although the intensity increased relatively steadily during this entire period, the greatest increase occurred during the three weeks immediately after the Liberal government started implementing the plan and the time it revised the plan in November 2015. The two major factors that contributed to that increase were the concerns created by some terrorist attacks in Europe, and the very slow progress in resettling many refugees during the month of November, which led to the realization not only by the critics, but also by government itself, that unless radical measures were taken it was impossible to resettle enough refugees during December to achieve the target of 25,000 by the end of the year.

The media's extensive coverage of the counter-narrative during the last quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016 reflected the fact that neither all political parties, all provincial governments, all non-governmental organizations, nor all members of the general public unanimously supported either the justificatory narrative or the plan. Indeed, there were various types of critiques regarding various aspects of both the plan and the narrative from many different sources.

The major critique of the plan was that its goal of resettling 25,000 refugees in two months was too ambitious. There was a high degree of skepticism among the critics that it was possible to resettle so many refugees effectively in such a short period of time. Two views prevailed among those who subscribed to and promulgated the counter-narrative. One was that logistically it was not possible to achieve the ambitious goal of the plan if existing conventional and prudent resettlement processes were used. The other was that regardless of which processes were used some major and potentially dangerous problems would likely arise for either or both the refugees and the country. Such criticisms came from many governmental and non-governmental critics, including notable ones such as Saskatchewan's Premier Brad Wall whose cogent letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticizing the plan and asking him to modify it received extensive media coverage (CBC News 2015a; Donnelly, 2015; Mandryk 2016).

The most substantial and significant critiques focused on the national capacities component of the narrative, rather than either the national obligations or national interests components. While there were some implied or very muted critiques of the national obligations and national interests components, the most explicit and vociferous critiques focused on the national capacities component (Showier 2015). Moreover, the critiques of the national capacity component focussed primarily and extensively on the organizational capacity and the securitization capacity dimensions, rather than the absorptive capacity dimension (Woods, Benzie and Boutilier 2015). Furthermore, in the case of the absorptive capacity dimension, much of the limited critique focused on whether Canada had sufficient economic integration capacity, rather than on whether it had sufficient social integration or political integration capacity.

It must be underscored, however, that none of the foregoing is to suggest that there were no concerns or critiques related to the national obligations, national interests or the aforementioned dimensions and facets of the national capacities component. Rather, insofar as some existed, they tended to be relatively minor and muted likely due to a combination of two key sets of factors. One entailed the restraints provided by the prevailing multicultural or intercultural ethos, the principle of political correctness, and the existence of hate laws. The other entailed the fact that unlike some European countries, Canada was not facing a massive, uncontrolled or indeterminate flow of Syrian refugees.

Given that the principal focus of the counter-narrative was on Canada's organizational and securitization capacities, it is useful to devote some additional attention to their intensification and increased traction. In the case of the securitization capacity much more attention was devoted to whether Canada had the capacity to screen and resettle so many refugees in such a short time without compromising the security or safety of the country's community. The intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative on securitization capacity occurred largely as a result of some criminal and terrorist activities in Europe involving a few migrants from various Middle Eastern countries. In Canada, as in some other countries, those activities created a backlash against the resettlement of Syrian refugees as some people began linking them with criminal and terrorist threats (Levitz 2016b). The media portrayal of such activities heightened concerns and fears both within the governmental and non-governmental spheres. This is particularly true following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. After those tragic incidents the media reported that the majority of Canadians (53%) were not in favour of a rushed refugee resettlement process (CBC News 2015b; Fletcher 2016; Woods, Benzie and Boutilier 2015). The respondents to that survey indicated that the short timeline for screening of Syrian refugees could lead to inadequate security checks, which, in turn, could facility abuses of the refugee resettlement system and compromise Canada's safety and security (Baglay 2017, 200). Such concerns persisted despite efforts by the federal government and some media outlets to assure that the threat was minimal because regardless of the pace of resettlement there were two major sets of screenings for all refugees, including those identified by the UNHRC as the most vulnerable--women and children (Canada 2017; Keung 2016a; Woods, Benzie and Boutilier 2015).

The intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative on organizational capacity started occurring within three weeks after the Liberal government launched its resettlement plan, and prevailed until the end of February 2016 by which time Canada had admitted more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, and it had managed to resettle a substantial number of them (though in many cases not optimally) in various communities across Canada (Canada 2017).

This was true both of what might be termed governmental organizational capacity and community organizational capacity. After the 2015 election much more attention was being devoted to whether Canada's governmental and non-governmental sectors had the human and financial resources as well as the facilities and logistical supports needed for the selection, transportation, reception, settlement and integration of the refugees (CBC News 2015a; Showier 2015).

In the case of governmental organizational capacity, the narrative included concerns and questions regarding whether the federal government could process and facilitate the security screening, transportation and reception of the targeted number of refugees by the end of 2015 (Kullab and Galloway 2015; Montreal Gazette 2015; Whittington 2015). Some attention was also devoted to the extent to which provincial and municipal governments had the capacity to respond to requests for assistance in facilitating the reception and settlement of the refugees. It is also important to note that one aspect of the counter-narrative regarding governmental capacity focused on the insufficient capacity to provide private sponsors with the refugees they were sponsoring in a timely fashion. Many who had supported the Liberal plan were now joining the counter-narrative choir with their own lament regarding failure to process the targeted number of refugees. They did so both because of the prolonged suffering for refugees, but also because waiting for sponsored refugees was costing many of them for housing facilities they had rented in anticipation that the refugees would arrive sooner than they did (Keung 2016b).

In the case of community organizational capacity, the counter-narrative included questions and concerns regarding whether settlement-service agencies, various mainstream service agencies and various other entities had the capacity to facilitate the resettlement of the targeted number of Syrian refugees efficiently and effectively by the end of 2015 without a substantial expansion of a wide range of reception and settlement facilities and services, and an increase in the financial and human resources needed for that purpose (Kullab and Galloway 2015). This included ongoing interpretation and translation services, orientation to Canada services, medical services including trauma counselling services, housing services, educational services for youths and adults, and economic integration services (Marshall 2017). It is noteworthy that the concerns and critiques regarding governmental and community organizational capacities were relatively widespread and not confined to communities of a particular size or location (CBC News 2015a; Sanders 2015; Zilio 2016).

Although the counter-narrative undoubtedly had some effect on the Liberal government's decision to revise its original plan, it is difficult to say precisely how much. Nevertheless, what can be said with some confidence is that the government had to be more sensitive to the counter-narrative in light of the challenges that emerged in achieving its resettlement goal by the initial target date, and also because of the concerns that were generated as a result of the terrorist bombing in France. However, it is not inconceivable that the government's decision to revise the plan had as much, if not more, to do with the implementation challenges it faced than with the intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative. It is also not inconceivable, however, that the government's own assessment of the significant challenges it faced achieving its resettlement target, had more to do with the revision of the plan than the intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative.


In this section, we discuss the public opinions manifested through polls conducted between September 2015 and February 2016 which received extensive media coverage (e.g., Dehaas 2015a; Dehaas 2015b; Hobson 2016; Keung 2016a) and reveal some interesting trends (See Table A and Table B) around what was perceived as appropriate numbers of Syrian refugees to be admitted to Canada. The public opinion polls also further our understanding of the aforementioned justificatory narrative and counter-narrative regarding the Liberal Syrian refugee resettlement plan.

First, the polls that focused specifically on the level of support for the resettlement plan of the Liberal Party before the 2015 election and the Liberal government after that election did not reveal a correlation between the evolution of the narrative and significant fluctuations in the polls over that period. Instead, they reveal only relatively minor fluctuations between October 2015, which was approximately 1.5 months after the Liberal Party announced it, and February 2016 by which time the Liberal government reached the target figure of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees, which was two months after the end of 2015 (Canada 2017).

Second, they reveal a major difference between the level of support for resettling an unspecified number of Syrian refugees over an unspecified time, and resettling 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015 as proposed by the Liberal Party at the start of September 2015. The level of support for the former (70%) was much higher than the level of support for the latter (49%).

Third, the two polls that focused on the issue of increasing, decreasing or retaining the targeted or actual levels of Syrian refugees, reveal that only 70% favoured any increase, and that only approximately 30% favoured an increase either in the targeted or actual level of Syrian refugees who were resettled (Hobson 2016).

In addition to the views of the general public, the narrative articulated by the media also included some attention to the level of support for the Liberal plan to resettle a relatively large number of Syrian refugees in a relatively short time among self-declared supporters of various federal parties (i.e., those inclined to support them electorally, and not just party members). In doing so, the narrative profiled the results of the national poll conducted by Forum Research from December 6 to 8, 2015 indicating a notable difference between Conservative Party supporters and those of the other two major parties. That poll indicated that the plan was supported by 68% of Liberal Party supporters, 59% of New Democratic Party supporters, and only 25% of Conservative Party members (Grenier 2015).

In explaining differences within each set of polls, the media pointed to some major events and debates that occurred before or after the 2015 election, all of which received extensive media coverage. A major event prior to the election was the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee, who drowned while seeking refuge from the civil war in Syria (Davis 2015). Two major events after the 2015 election were the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, and the challenges faced by governmental and non-governmental agencies in resettling refugees (Donnelly 2015). The media also pointed to the intense debates that prevailed before and after the 2015 election regarding the nature and scope of Canada's role in resettling Syrian refugees. These events and debates affected not only the polls but also the intensity and traction of the narrative and counter-narrative.

Another major finding is that despite the intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative and its critique of the Liberal plan over time, public opinion polls indicate that there was only minor fluctuation in the level of support or opposition to that plan. The polls indicate that Canadians were essentially evenly split in their support for or opposition to the plan. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that support for the resettlement plan was lower while the Liberal government was facing the challenges that ultimately led it to revise its plan, than in February when it had essentially achieved its plan of resettling 25,000 refugees. Nevertheless, the polls summarized in Table B suggest that the majority of respondents were not in favour of increasing the target number of refugees either in December or in February.

It is important to underscore that, ostensibly, the polls focused explicitly on the support and opposition regarding the Liberal plan, and not necessarily the broader issue of the resettlement of Syrian refugees perse. However, given the possibility that the two issues were conflated in their minds, and therefore their responses were either reflective or influenced by their predisposition to resettling refugees and particularly Syrian refugees, rather than the key elements of the plan, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions regarding the extent to which the polls were true indicators of their support or opposition to the plan per se. This applies a-fortiori when we consider the possibility that some respondents may have also been influenced by partisan political considerations. After all, the results of the polls on the relationship between partisanship and position on the plan seem to suggest that this may have been a significant factor in the responses of respondents.


The central objective of this article has been to provide an overview and analysis of the justificatory narrative and counter-narrative articulated or, if you will, reflected or echoed by the mainstream mass media, regarding the Syrian resettlement plan proposed by the Liberal Party during the 2015 election campaign and its implementation by the Liberal government during the four months after that election. The article also devoted some attention to the genesis and evolution of that plan, and the degree of continuity and change in public opinion regarding that plan both prior to and after the 2015 election. The objective in this concluding section is to summarize the findings and provide some observations regarding the significance of the findings, and a suggestion for strategic directions on further research.

Succinctly stated the major finding is that the justificatory narrative and counter-narrative consisted of three major components, namely national obligations, national interests and national capacities. The central theme of the justificatory narrative was that an ambitious resettlement plan was in keeping with Canada's national obligations and national interests, and that the country had the requisite capacities to implement the Liberal resettlement plan. Although the counter-narrative did not necessarily reject the postulations of the justificatory narrative regarding national obligations and national interests, it embodied major concerns and criticisms regarding Canada's capacities to implement such an ambitious plan. The principal focus of those concerns and criticisms were the country's organizational capacity to implement the plan efficiently and effectively in ways that did not compromise either the refugees' resettlement experience, or the country's safety and security.

Another major finding is that despite the intensification and increased traction of the counter-narrative over time, public opinion polls indicate that there was only a relatively minor fluctuation in the level of support or opposition to that plan. The polls indicated that Canadians were essentially evenly split in their support for or opposition to the plan. However, as we have indicated in the previous section, several factors led us to raise some questions regarding what accounts for that split.

Many lessons can be drawn from the narrative and counter-narrative of the Syrian refugee resettlement plan proposed by the Liberal Party during the 2015 election campaign and implemented by the Liberal government after that campaign. One important lesson is that several factors may contribute to the genesis, the content, and the justificatory narrative and counter-narrative regarding the resettlement of refugees. Key among those factors are considerations regarding national obligations, national interests and national capacities. Other key and related factors include the prevailing perceptions of the degree of suffering by prospective refugees, the prevailing perceptions of the potential value of the refugees to the country resettling them, the prevailing pre-conceptions of the refugees and their socio-cultural and economic fit in that country, and perceptions of the degree of potential risks of prospective refugees based on the activities of refugees or asylum seekers, or other people from the same region of the world as the refugees being resettled.

Finally, it should be noted that both the proposed plan, the justificatory narrative and counter-narrative occurred in a particular political and economic context within and beyond Canada. While this article has provided some insights not only on the complex calculus of policy and political rationality that shaped the policy and the narratives, but also on the complex causal relationship between policy proposals, narratives, and public opinion, much more analytical attention to it is warranted than what has been provided either in this article or in other studies of the Syrian refugee resettlement project. Examining that calculus and the complex causal relationships more systematically and extensively will make it possible to get a fuller understanding not only of that particular case of refugee resettlement and other comparable cases, but also of the foundations of Canada's immigration and refugee policies and, ultimately of course, of the complex and evolving normative foundations of Canadian society, politics, and policies.


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JOSEPH GARCEA is Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan where he teaches courses in Canadian politics, public policy, public management, and local governance. His research agenda has included a variety of projects related to Canadian immigration, settlement, integration and citizenship policies and programs. He has been a member of the Prairie Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Integration (PCERII) and is currently a member of the Immigration Research West (IRW) leadership team.

DANIEL KIKULWE is Assistant Professor at the University of Regina, Faculty of Social Work. His area of academic interest is in families, immigration, child welfare practices and policies. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children and its applicability to the global south, as well as kinship care trends in Canada are important foci of his work.
TABLE A. Level of Support for Target of Resettling 25,000 Syrian

Date                      Support           Oppose        Don't Know

September 12-15,2015 (a)  71%(44%+27%) (b)  27%(17%+10%)   3%
October 2015 (c)          39%               51%           10%
November 2015 (c)         42%               54%            4%
November 17,2015          41%               51%            8%
December 6-8,2015         48%               44%            8%
February 2016 (d)         52%               44%            4%

Date                      Pollster

September 12-15,2015 (a)  Nanos Survey
October 2015 (c)          Angus Reid Institute
November 2015 (c)         Angus Reid Institute
November 17,2015          Forum
December 6-8,2015         Forum
February 2016 (d)         Angus Reid Institute

(a) This Nanos Survey poll just asked whether the number of Syrian
refugees should be increased. It did not focus specifically on the
25,000 target figure proposed by the Liberal Party during the 2015

(b) This Nanos Survey poll used more categories for responses (44%) or
somewhat supported (27%) increasing the number of Syrian refugees
accepted by Canada, only 27% either opposed (17%) or somewhat opposed
(10%) such an increase, and 3% were unsure.

(c) The Angus Reid Institute polls of October and November 2016 asked
respondents whether they strongly or moderately supported the plan of
the Liberal Party and the Liberal government of 25,000 by January 1,

(d) The Angus Reid Institute poll of February 2016 asked respondents
whether they still supported the Liberal government's revised plan of
resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016.

TABLE B. Level of Support for Increasing, Decreasing or Retaining
Target of 25,000 Syrian Refugees

Date            Right  Increase  Decrease  Stop at 25,000

December 18-22  37%    28%       28%
February 2016   --     29%       --        29%

Date            Stop at Current Level  Unsure  Pollster

December 18-22  --                     7%      Nanos Survey
February 2016   42%                    --      Angus Reid Institute
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Author:Garcea, Joseph; Kikulwe, Daniel
Publication:Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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