The Canadian Forces could play a key role in helping to bring at least 50,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by Christmas, said retired general Rick Hillier.
“We’ve got these incredible leaders in the Canadian Forces, across the RCMP and many other places in our nation who are ready to step up,” he said in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.
Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff and one of Canada’s top soldiers, called for the government to bring in at least 50,000 Syrian refugees over the next three months, a figure he said he believes is realistic.
“We’re used to, as a nation, running big operations around the world — whether that’s the Canadian Forces putting 3,000 soldiers on the ground in a war zone 12,000 kilometres from home in a very short period of time or bringing 50,000 war brides back from England in 1955. We can do this kind of thing.”
But, he said, the country has to move fast.
“I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being in the middle of some of those crises where I served as a soldier,” he said. “I know you see the agony and the terror on TV screens, but you really don’t appreciate just how tragic an experience it is until you’re in the middle of it, until you witness it personally.
“For those kids and those families and older people who are living in terror and fleeing for their lives, waiting [a few months] is far too long for them.”
Hillier calls for immediate action on crisis
Hillier laid out a plan that includes a national meeting of the municipal, provincial and federal leaders, as well as faith groups and social organizations.
“Bring them together, make our decision quickly of where people could go … and then at the same time, get the Canadian Forces, the RCMP, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Canada working on what kind of clearance process we want,” he said.
“Let’s put a logistics operation in place, get all these cruise ships in Europe that come back to North America for the winter season and let’s go and lease a couple of those, bring three or four or five thousand people at a time,” Hillier added.
“You don’t have to fly people here on military airplanes. Take seven or eight or nine or 10 days to bring them across the Atlantic and you got more time to figure out assessments. This kind of operation is doable. This is what our nation has done for 147 years. Let’s do it again.”
‘We’ve got to stop being frightened of our own shadow’
Hillier admitted there are security risks involved, but said those risks can be contained.
“We can do this, and doing it quickly doesn’t mean you have to take short cuts,” he said.
Hillier outlined a proposal where workers on the ground would profile and screen refugee applicants as part of the selection process.
“If we select the refugees, particularly those who need our help most, first, we can go with children who are orphaned, who’ve lost their moms and dads, who are all alone,” he said.
“Go with young women, older women who are perhaps on their own. Go with single-parent families or go with comprehensive families, and you’re going to have 50,000 refugees in a heartbeat. And almost none of those is going to be any kind of security threat whatsoever.”
Hillier also suggested talking to the refugees in the camps to help assess the security situation.
“Those refugees will tell you anybody that’s different, anybody they suspect of having violent intentions or being a terrorist or being inserted into those crowds, and we can easily do the assessment.”
“Then use the databases that have been developed by the UN, by the police forces in Europe, by Interpol, by our own intelligence systems and do the assessment of those folks that, in particular, we would worry about,” Hillier added.
“We’ve got to stop being frightened of our own shadow. You know, we live in a dangerous world. We handle it pretty well and we’ve got to take some appropriate security measures no matter how many refugees come into our nation.”
Airstrikes in Syria must continue, Hillier says
But Hillier said the humanitarian side of the crisis is just one part of Canada’s response in Syria, where both the extremist group ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government are waging a brutal civil war.
The former soldier put it in blunt terms.
“Look after those poor people on the one hand, and pound the folks who are really responsible for causing a lot of it on the other hand,” he said.
For Hillier, that means continuing with Canada’s role in the coalition mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“You’ve got to contain ISIS and that means you’ve got to decapitate the leadership,” he said. “You’ve got to continue with airstrikes, you have to use special forces…and continue to help build the Iraqi army and Kurdish defence capabilities. Once you’ve achieved some advances there, then you can perhaps stop President Assad and his terrible killing regime, stabilizing Syria so that you don’t get that constant exodus [of refugees].”
Hillier was clear that in his view, bringing in more refugees to Canada must be accompanied with continued military action — an opinion that is shared by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“It’s a combined effort,” Hillier said. “You’ve got to continue to decapitate ISIS and that means military action, it means aircraft, painting targets on the ground, drone strikes, special forces. If you stop that, you’re going to increase the capability of ISIS and you’re going to have more refugees trying to flee that horrible terror that ISIS brings and that Assad brings.”
When it comes to the effectiveness of the Canadian Forces’ airstrikes in Syria, Hillier said he believes there is room for improvement.
“I think it’s going to require perhaps more assets, more special forces strikes,” he said.
“It’s going to require a constant, very strategic focus on how we go after that leadership [in Syria].”
No plans to run for political office
Despite his detailed proposals for dealing with the refugee crisis, the retired general said he has no plans to run for political office himself.
“I am always delighted to try and contribute to my nation … but I have no intentions of going into the political arena,” he said, adding that he has no criticism for any of the three major party leaders and their responses to the crisis.
“They’re all trying to do the very best that they can,” he said.
“I’m just saying, look, let’s take what you’re saying and multiply it by a factor of three and speed it up by a factor of five, and get it done and let’s prove Canada is still the great nation that went up Vimy Ridge in 1917 and went ashore in Normandy in 1944, and did all those other things that we remember and still talk about.”
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