Former Canadian Cabinet minister Perrin Beatty remembers when he was part of a government that accepted more than 60,000 refugees who fled the Vietnam War for Canada in 1979 and 1980.
Since then, Canada has settled thousands of refugees from places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia. Now, with civil war in Syria, Canada is preparing to bring in thousands more people fleeing their homeland. Late Thursday, a Canadian military CC-150 aircraft carried the first planeload of Syrian refugees from Beirut to Toronto, with another arrival scheduled in Montreal on Saturday.
Beatty, a former defense minister and now the president and chief executive of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, is part of an unprecedented coalition of business and labor groups working alongside the Canadian government to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees over the next three months.
"We are unleashing an enormous amount of positive energy to look at how to welcome these people here," said Beatty, whose chamber is encouraging its network of 200,000 businesses to hire refugees and raise money to assist in their settlement. "This is not a government exercise, it's a national exercise that manifests itself through churches, schools, business, labor unions, community organizations and government."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government recently extended its year-end target to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees until the end of February.
Unlike in the United States, where more than half of state governors oppose the admission of Syrian refugees, Canada's 13 provincial and territorial premiers "are on board" with the federal government's resettlement plan, Canadian Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said at a news conference Wednesday.
"It is truly a nonpartisan national project in which all Canadians are involved," McCallum told reporters. "And the fact that in our country, two-thirds of the people agree versus less than 30% south of the border, I think says something about Canada."
A survey last month by Canadian research firm Nanos found that 65% of the 1,000 Canadians polled supported the government's plan to bring Syrian refugees to the country. By contrast, a Bloomberg poll also conducted in November found that only 28% of the 1,002 U.S. adults surveyed were in favor of allowing Syrian refugees into the United States without a religious-screening mechanism.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump made world headlines this week when he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims" entering the U.S., and Beatty said that Trump's "rancid" remarks would "drive Canadians in the other direction" to be more welcoming of Syrian refugees.
He said Canada has a tradition of assisting people from other countries, such as through the Canadian military's involvement in airlifting more than 5,000 mainly Muslim Kosovars in 1999 amid the war in Yugoslavia and evacuating about 7,000 Ismaili Muslims expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972.
"Our experience is that refugees integrate well into Canadian life and make a significant contribution here," said Beatty, who referred to Kim Thuy. Born in Saigon, she fled Vietnam with her family, among the tens of thousands of so-called boat people, and settled in Canada, where she earned a degree in law and became a celebrated author.
A Vietnamese Canadian group called Voice Canada is raising money to sponsor three Syrian refugee families.
Beatty said the "most powerful statement about the contribution refugees can make to Canada" is embodied in Cambodian refugee Samearn Son, a security officer on Parliament Hill who last year took a bullet in the leg from Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the gunman who shot and killed a soldier, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, on sentry duty at the National War Memorial.
"Samearn standing guard over the Canadian citadel of democracy is about as graphic an illustration of the contribution refugees make to Canada," said Beatty, who believes that despite the "best friendship" that exists between Canada and the U.S., there are "profound" cultural differences in which Canadians view refugees as more welcome additions to their nation's identity.
Hassan Yussuff, the first nonwhite president of the Canadian Labor Congress, approached Beatty and other business executives to orchestrate a joint effort to ensure Syrian refugees get help to rebuild their lives once they arrive in Canada.
"I was blown away by the response," said Yussuff, a Guyanese immigrant, who said the executives he contacted immediately agreed to be involved in the collaboration, which also includes representatives from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities in Canada.
Air Canada has informed the Canadian government that it would help bring refugees to the country. Canadian rail transport company CN is set to announce its support for the resettlement process Friday.
Yussuff said the "boldness" of the Trudeau government's plan to accept Syrian refugees has received widespread support from all sectors of Canadian society.
"Hopefully within time it will extend to bring more refugees," Yussuff said, "because we can do more as a country and make it a better place for all of us."
Guly is a special correspondent.