OTTAWA – For years, the millions displaced by the ongoing civil war in Syria hardly registered on Canada’s radar, but a single death this fall suddenly brought the conflict home.
And the way the Syrian refugee crisis then galvanized Canadians has prompted news editors across the country to select it as Canada’s News Story of the Year for 2015.
The annual survey by The Canadian Press saw 26 votes cast for the crisis and the ensuing Liberal government response as the most compelling story of the year, with the Liberal election victory in second place with 24 votes.
“The combination of Justin’s Trudeau’s dramatic election victory and how the Syrian refugee crisis played a key role in the midst of that campaign makes these two stories among the most significant of 2015,” said Rick Bogacz, executive producer of MSN.ca.
“We’ll be feeling their impact for years to come.”
While the civil war has raged since 2011, 2015 saw an unprecedented exodus of Syrians, not just out of their home country, but out of the countries nearby where an estimated four million Syrians have sought refuge in the last four years.
In early September, the Kurdi family was among them, seeking to get out of Turkey and to Greece via boat. But the vessel capsized and three-year-old Alan Kurdi died, a photograph of his lifeless body on a Turkish beach ricocheting around the world.
It landed on front pages in the midst of the federal election, and when it became known the Kurdis had family in British Columbia who were trying to bring some of them to Canada, Alan’s death became unexpected campaign issue, spurring debate on whether the country was doing enough to help address the major humanitarian crisis.
“The fragile image of Alan Kurdi not only put the four-year-old Syrian war on front pages in newspapers around the world, it forced action,” said David Trifunov, managing editor of the Daily Courier in Kelowna, B.C.”
“The war had been dragging on and Kurdi’s short life made Canadians aware of the carnage that was unfolding half a world away.”
Accusations that members of the Kurdi family were rejected by Canada — although the government later said the proper paperwork had not been filed — prompted an outcry. That, coupled with statistics showing that current resettlement of Syrian refugees was happening at a glacial pace, forced the then-Conservative government to overhaul their existing program in the midst of the election.
It also saw the Liberals reiterate a pledge they’d made back in March — under a Liberal government, 25,000 Syrians refugees would be brought to Canada. During the campaign they stuck a deadline on the promise too — they would do it by year’s end.
The program is currently underway, albeit revised — the Liberals are aiming to resettle 10,000 people by the end of this month and a further 15,000 by end of February.
“The effects (of the refugee crisis) will continue in 2016 to have a major impact on the political agenda in Europe and the world,” said Gilles Carignan, vice-president of information and assistant editor of Le Soleil.
That the Liberals found themselves in a position to make good on that promise was thanks to an election victory no one was expecting, several news editors said in choosing that victory as the news story of the year.
“You got the sense some sort of change was coming, but very few predicted the Red Tide that started with the Liberals taking all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, and continued across the country to give Justin Trudeau a strong majority in the House of Commons,” said Greg Morrow, news director of 101.5 The Hawk in Port Hawkesbury, N.S..
The orange tide that swept Alberta politics in the form of an NDP victory was another contender for the year’s most compelling story but was overshadowed by the economic realities in that province thanks to turmoil in the energy industry. Thirteen people cast their vote for that as the story of the year.
“Between pipeline debates, massive layoffs, environmental protests, greenhouse gas emissions and the plummeting price of oil, Canada’s energy sector has been front and centre throughout 2015,” said Margo Goodhand, editor of the Edmonton Journal.
Voting in The Canadian Press annual survey took place over a three-week period in late November through December. Seventy-three ballots were cast, with participants choosing from a list of stories provided by senior editors at The Canadian Press.
Follow @StephanieLevitz on Twitter