OTTAWA — The federal government responded to weeks of pressure from Canadian veterans on Friday by announcing that it will fast-track the resettlement of potentially thousands of Afghans who have worked with Canada at different times over the past 20 years.
Yet the trio of cabinet ministers on hand to announce the new measures were surprisingly light on details, including exactly who will be eligible for resettlement and when people now in danger from the Taliban for helping Canada will start to arrive.
“For operational security reasons, the precise timing of this operation is extremely sensitive,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, who is leading the effort alongside Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau.
“For the safety and security of the Afghans as well as the Canadian teams who are already on the ground … we have to safeguard the precise details of how this operation will be carried out, as well as exactly when it will begin.”
Friday’s announcement followed growing concern and frustration within Canada’s veterans community after the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in recent weeks emboldened the Taliban to take large swaths of the country.
That includes in the southern province of Kandahar where the Canadian military spent the longest amount of time during its 13-year mission in the country, and where it fought its bloodiest battles since the Korean War.
Canada lost 158 soldiers and seven civilians in Afghanistan before the military was withdrawn in 2014, most of them to hostile action by the Taliban.
Now the veterans say those Afghans who supported them as well as their families are facing the threat of retribution as the Taliban expands its reach and looks to exact revenge on collaborators.
Mendicino said the government already has teams on the ground working to identify people who are at risk for having worked with Canada, and that immigration officials will fast-track applications for asylum from those who qualify.
“Our focus is on those who have had a significant and enduring relationship with the government of Canada,” he said.
“Those eligible will include but are not limited to interpreters who worked with the Canadian Forces during the combat mission, locally engaged staff currently or previously employed at the Canadian Embassy and their families.”
Canada previously resettled about 800 Afghan nationals and their families in two separate programs launched in 2008 and 2012, before the end of the military mission.
The government expects several thousand this time around, Mendicino said, though he refused to be more specific.
By Lee Berthiaume