City will look for territorial action over Syrian refugees

Mark Heyck addressing residents
Mayor of Yellowknife Mark Heyck addresses residents at a public forum regarding Syrian refugees.
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The Mayor of Yellowknife will look to the territorial government as a next step in launching assistance for refugees fleeing Syria.

Around 70 people attended a public forum at City Hall on Thursday evening, in which residents with knowledge of the immigration system spoke of the challenges associated with sponsoring refugees.

Ideas discussed ranged from attempts to sponsor individuals and families, through to the suggestion of bringing more than a thousand refugees to the territory with the financial assistance of diamond mines.

Mayor Mark Heyck told Moose FM he needs to know how the territorial government plans to act.

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“I’m going to approach the territorial government and ask them what their thinking is on the subject,” said Heyck.

“Certainly, other provincial governments in other parts of the country have stepped up and sent some pretty clear messages to Ottawa that they’d like to try to alleviate the situation that Syrian refugees are facing.

“I’d like to know if the territorial government has a plan and, if not, why.”

The territory responded on Friday with a statement pledging $25,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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“Because we do not already have a role in refugee settlement services, the Northwest Territories is exploring other ways we may be able to help,” Premier Bob McLeod’s statement continued.

“We are talking to other provinces and territories about what they are doing, and what their settlement programs entail, and we are talking to our federal partners about what other opportunities exist for our territory.

“The Northwest Territories is a welcoming place, with an appreciation for the history of Canada in welcoming immigrants, particularly those displaced by conflict. We are committed to finding ways to support displaced refugees in the coming weeks.”

‘This is unique’

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Heyck believes the city is best suited to a ‘facilitator’ role, helping other organizations and communities to sponsor refugees.

No clear plans were outlined at Thursday’s meeting, which focused on hearing from residents about their experiences and ambitions.

Shams Atroun, originally from Sudan, came to Canada almost two decades ago in a government-assisted sponsorship program similar to those now being used to help Syrian refugees. He subsequently spent nine years at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, helping to process refugees’ applications.

Atroun, now a Yellowknifer, told Moose FM the city should focus on providing financial support to local organizations when sponsoring applicants.

“The city can help by putting money there as an assurance. The federal government’s number one fear is those people will come here and end up in social assistance,” said Atroun.

“When they see the government of Yellowknife will make sure this does not happen, the embassy will be very comfortable giving those kinds of applications consideration.

“This is unique, actually, the city coming out and taking a role. Usually this doesn’t happen and I really applaud the mayor for that.”

Nancy Trotter has spent more than two years trying to help a single applicant through the United Church of Canada. She told us the delays have been frustrating.

“We hope we’re getting close to the end. The individual has had an interview, the forms have all gone in and we hope to hear something by the end of September,” said Trotter.

“There is help out there to do this. It can be a long process and the paperwork is very extensive but I think it’s definitely worth it. I’m really happy to see the number of people in Yellowknife who are interested in the refugees.”

Trotter wants the city to set up a working group to examine the options available. At the meeting, she raised the question of whether the city has the health and social services in place to effectively care for any larger-scale influx of refugees.

“We all know there are services available here. Whether they’re adequate enough for people coming from a refugee situation – we may be inadequate in that area,” she said.

However, local mining consultant David Connelly urged the city and residents to dream big.

Connelly wants to see the territory take on more than a thousand refugees, pointing to the many empty homes and jobs waiting in Yellowknife and other communities. He believes doing so would help to solve the territory’s looming population problem as residents continue to leave.

“By being generous we can also rebuild our community,” said Connelly.

One resident asked the mayor if the $6.5 million projected cost of redeveloping the downtown 50-50 lot might be money better spent helping refugees.

In response to that idea, Heyck said legislation would stop the city reallocating funds to something that may not have a “municipal purpose”.

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