TORONTO – The first large group of Syrian refugees coming to Canada by government aircraft arrived in Toronto late Thursday night, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on hand to welcome them at a temporary processing centre at Pearson International Airport.
Trudeau was joined by the ministers of immigration, health and defence, as well as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, local mayors and opposition immigration critics.
Trudeau and Wynne greeted the first two families to come through processing and gave them winter coats.
The first family was a couple with their 16-month-old girl and the second was a man and woman with their three daughters, two of whom are twins. Both families said they were happy to be here.
“They step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada with social insurance numbers, with health cards and with an opportunity to become full Canadians,” Trudeau said just prior to the plane’s arrival.
“This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by a skin colour or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share.”
All of the Syrians on board are sponsored by private groups, many of whom had filed the necessary paperwork months ago in order to bring in some of the estimated 4.3 million Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war in that country.
More than 400 refugees have already arrived on commercial flights since the Liberals took office on Nov. 4.
Just before the aircraft arrived, the prime minister thanked the staff and volunteers helping to process and welcome the 163 refugees.
“How you will receive these people tonight will be something they will remember for the rest of their lives, but also I know something that you will remember for the rest of your lives,” Trudeau said.
“So I thank you deeply for being a part of this because this matters. Tonight matters, not just for Canada but for the world.”
Canadians eager to show their support for the newcomers weren’t deterred by the fact that they couldn’t do so face to face.
A handful of people gathered at the international arrivals gate at Pearson bearing signs and gifts.
Stefania Dunlop and Lubna Altaher dropped off dozens of bags brimming with snacks and plush toys for the children, as well as hats and mittens for the adults. The pair said they had made arrangements with airport security to have the items —and several hundreds more bags — brought to the designated terminal where the government flight landed.
“We don’t have direct access, sadly, but these are going to be delivered,” Dunlop said.
Canadians have a reputation for being welcoming and the response to the refugee crisis “is just a true testament to that,” she said.
Andrew Harris, 51, said he wanted to counter the fearful messaging about Muslims that has circulated since the Paris attacks.
He held up a large yellow sign that read “Welcome to Canada,” saying that even if the arriving refugees don’t see it, the positive words won’t go unnoticed.
“I knew that they were going to be at a terminal where the public wasn’t allowed, which I totally understand, but I thought I can come out here and just express a message of goodwill … and I know it’s liable to reach them eventually.”
This marks the first government aircraft carrying refugees as the government works to fulfil a pledge of bringing in 25,000 refugees by the end of February.
Of the 163 people who arrived Thursday, 116 will head to new homes in the Toronto area. Another four will go to Windsor, Ont. Sponsors in Kelowna, B.C. will welcome four, three will go to Coquitlam, B.C. and one to New Westminster, B.C. Twenty are bound for Calgary, Alta., and the final 15 to Edmonton, according to statistics released by the Immigration department.
A second flight is set to arrive in Montreal on Saturday.