Watching the Afghan crisis unfold on TV, Tima Kurdi can’t help but relate to the desperation she sees — of people fleeing a brutal regime or risking their lives by clinging to a moving aircraft with the hope of reaching a safe place.
It was only a few years ago the Syrian woman from Coquitlam, B.C., was knocking on the doors of politicians and immigration officials begging for help to bring her family in Turkey here. Canada responded after the photograph of her three-year-old nephew, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a beach shocked the world’s conscience.
“It brings back all my emotions when I see the Afghans,” Kurdi told the Star.
“When people are in danger, they do anything and everything to be safe.”
Alan Kurdi drowned with his mother and older brother when their boat to Greece capsized near the Turkish coast, changing the course of a Canadian election and propelling a national project that changed the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
That was in 2015 and Canada was in the middle of an intense federal election as the Conservative government under then-prime minister Stephen Harper was hammered for its reluctance to open the door to Syrian refugees. It was the election that saw Harper’s government ousted by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.
“What happened to my nephews was a sad tragedy, but it was a gift to the Trudeau government,” Kurdi says today.
Now, in the midst of another election, there’s a new humanitarian crisis, and the governing Trudeau Liberals are the ones being criticized for failing to adequately help the Afghan interpreters and civilians who worked for Canada on the ground in that country and are being targeted by a ruthless Taliban.
Since the election campaign officially kicked off, the Liberals have been dogged by media questions and criticism from advocates and the military veterans community about Ottawa’s slow response to the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, photos and clips of desperate Afghans falling off a U.S. military flight in the air emerged and went viral.
On Friday, Trudeau was again forced to defend his government’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan, pointing to its record in resettling Syrians.
“Everyone did their part when it came time to welcome in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees back in 2015 and 2016,” he said. “When people are scrambling around the world, I can tell you that everyone is working incredibly hard, day and night, to try and get as many people out of Afghanistan into safety as possible, and we will continue to do everything we possibly can.”
On Thursday, a Royal Canadian Air Force flight flew 188 people, including 175 Afghans and 13 foreign nationals, out of Kabul, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said on Twitter.
“Canadian flights will continue for as long as the situation on the ground permits,” he added.
Observers say there is pressure for the Liberal party leader to handle the Afghan file well between now and election day on Sept. 20.
“These images are very powerful,” said University of Toronto political science professor Randy Besco.
“The media very rarely actually changes people’s minds on an issue. But what they do is they make people think about it as opposed to thinking about something else. So when you see a lot of media coverage, it has people thinking and talking about the issue.”
Traditionally, foreign policies, international crises and immigration issues have not been seen as big determinants of Canadian elections, with voters often seen as being more concerned about their day-to-day problems.
But some say the Syrian crisis did play a role in the outcome of the 2015 federal election, raising the question: Could the fall of Afghanistan come to weigh on the fate of Trudeau’s Liberals in a similar fashion?
Chris Alexander, former immigration minister under the Harper government, said the Syrian crisis was the “game changer” of the 2015 election.
Fully aware of how the European migration crisis dominated media headlines that summer, Alexander said he asked the Conservative party to bring more Syrian refugees to Canada but the people running the campaign did not heed his advice.
Trudeau, meanwhile, seized on the issue and pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrians within three months if the Liberals won the election.
“That set the tone for our campaign, the backdrop for our campaign, and made this issue much more important than it would have been if the wave of migrants was coming to Europe a year earlier or a year later. I think it was one of the two or three absolutely definitive issues,” Alexander told the Star.
“I wanted to do what Trudeau has done and more. I proposed … that we should bring 100,000 Syrians to Canada quite quickly and we still haven’t done that … Was that the issue in the election campaign? I’ll leave that to you to decide.”
It did not help when Alan Kurdi, the boy in the photo that captured global attention, actually had a Canadian connection through his aunt, who had been unsuccessfully trying to bring her brother’s family to Canada from Turkey. It brought a global crisis that much closer to home.
Alexander feels the government’s role in the current situation in Afghanistan is a bit different because Canada is simply facing the same challenges as other governments in evacuating their allies from the country.
“We know who we want to help. But the Taliban won’t let them into the airport and it’s nothing Canada can do on its own to fix that problem,” he said, adding the Liberals’ plan to resettle 20,000 refugees who already fled Afghanistan “is the right thing to do.”
Toronto activist Raja Khouri, who founded Lifeline Syria in 2015 with other advocates, said the Syrian issue was only a final electoral straw in what many saw as anti-Muslim policies under Harper’s 10-year tenure.
The ban of the niqab — a veil covering most of a Muslim woman’s face — at a citizenship ceremony and the promise of setting up a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline targeting primarily the Muslim community painted the Conservatives as a party that’s anti-diversity and racist.
“You had a Conservative government that was very clear with its intention not to bring in any Syrian refugees, but it wasn’t this one stand-alone issue. It was strongly linked to an obviously Islamophobic government that we had at the time,” noted Khouri.
“What you have now is not a government that doesn’t want to help or it’s not helping because it doesn’t like Afghans or Muslims. It’s just acting a little slow. They could have acted sooner, faster, for sure.”
The Liberals’ delays in the Afghan evacuation and resettlement effort, he said, is just a result of bureaucratic red tape and a reflection of Canada’s traditional “risk-averse” approach to problems.
Both Harper then and Trudeau now have been criticized for their inaction to a global humanitarian crisis until the lead-up to an election, when they’re under the pressure to respond.
For some, Canada’s direct involvement in the war on terrorism and development projects in Afghanistan along with its allies makes it inexcusable for the Trudeau government to be slow in responding to the current crisis, rolling out a special resettlement plan for Afghans in late July, shortly before the election was called.
“There’s an argument to be made for when a country is actually directly involved in creating the conditions for people to have to leave their country, that led to massive movements of refugees, then we have an even higher obligation to act,” said Queen’s University law professor Sharry Aiken.
“I feel like the federal government is kind of manipulating this narrative for political purposes.”
Like the Syrian crisis, she said, the Liberals didn’t just wake up one day and realize the Afghans who worked for them suddenly faced the threats of Taliban insurgents, who have returned and officially taken over Afghanistan since last Sunday.
In fact, members of the Afghan community in Canada have been waiting and trying to bring over their loved ones, to no avail. The veteran community has been advocating for their Afghan friends for years to bring them over to safety.
Although the delays and backlogs don’t reflect well on the governing party, Aiken doesn’t believe the Afghan crisis will be a “make or break” issue in this election.
“Canadians on all sides are watching the headlines and horrified, asking some of the military questions: Is it really all for nothing? It’s not so much that refugee piece of it, but also the reconstruction effort, our investments and support on the ground,” she said.
“The Liberals don’t necessarily wear that alone. This is a 20-year policy implemented and executed by NATO. You can’t really pin it on Trudeau. It’s not really sticky in that regard.”
Regardless, Canadian veterans have been vocal and critical of the Liberals for the government’s failure to rescue the Afghan interpreters and civilians who risked their lives to help their missions. Some have even taken upon themselves to fund and organize their own effort to save their Afghan friends.
Their noises about the eligibility and speediness of the resettlement may not resonate with voters, said political science professor Besco, who specializes in elections, public opinion, and the role of race, ethnicity and immigration.
“These issues are important to the veterans and Afghans in Canada, but they are just criticisms around the edges. It’s not a fundamental disagreement on the whole thing,” Besco explained.
For something to emerge as a wedge issue, political parties would have to hold contrasting positions for voters to make a choice, he said.
Conservative party Leader Erin O’Toole has attacked the Liberals’ slow response to the Afghan crisis but has not offered alternatives other than agreeing to match the Liberal commitment to resettle at least 20,000 Afghans if elected.
“You need the parties to take positions that are different enough that people can tell the difference. When all parties are all the same, then it doesn’t really matter who you vote for,” said Besco.
Resettling Afghans and dealing with the Taliban can be “dangerous issues” and leave very little room for the Conservatives to exploit either because of the party’s own engagement in Afghanistan when in power and the fear of being labelled as anti-migrant and anti-Muslim.
“It’s difficult for them to sort of suddenly turn around and say, ‘Why are we even here?’ and things like that,” said Besco. “They are sort of caught between part of their base that doesn’t want refugees. On the other hand, if they oppose refugees, then they lose these other votes they really need to win.”
Back in Coquitlam, Kurdi said it still pains her that it took her nephews’ lives to push Canada to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis and that she struggles to this day with depression as a result of the loss. There isn’t a better time to force the Canadian government to act than during an election, in her view.
“This is all politics. When there’s a tragedy, everything is possible in the blink of an eye and people start to wake up. Canada has the capacity to bring in more than 20,000 Afghans. That’s a drop in the ocean,” said Kurdi.
“People can’t be silenced. When these politicians knock on our doors and ask for our votes, we need to make them hear our voice.”