OTTAWA — The Liberal government is struggling to track the impact of its historic effort to resettle upwards of 40,000 Syrian refugees, the federal auditor general concluded Tuesday in his fall report.
Markers like how many kids are in school or how many Syrians are on income assistance weren't being measured between fall 2015 and the spring of this year, the period examined by the federal watchdog, raising questions about what happened to the population once they began to settle in Canada.
While a rapid impact evaluation was conducted by the government for the first wave of arrivals, the auditor general went digging over the longer term, looking to see whether Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was both providing the services newcomers needed and tracking what happened next.
"This audit is important because the Syrian refugee initiative will succeed in the long term only if the people it brought to Canada integrate into Canadian society," the report said.
While the federal government did have a plan to track outcomes and went as far as identifying what indicators it should look for, it either didn't collect the required data outright, or had trouble getting it from the provinces.
So what was left was only what existed at the federal level, like whether newcomers were getting their needs assessed or attending language classes. In both cases, the vast majority of Syrians were, the report concluded.
But just because other data — like school enrolment, social assistance or health care access — lies with the provinces doesn't mean the federal government can ignore it, auditor general Michael Ferguson said Tuesday.
"It is very much incumbent on the department to collect the information to understand what's going on at the provincial level as well because it is their responsibility to understand if these refugees are integrating," he said.
Ferguson's team also found that despite the millions of dollars allocated to settlement services, some organizations ended up cutting services for three months because the federal government was too slow delivering money.
The department had asked the organizations to keep the programs going with a promise the money would come later, but 16 groups weren't prepared to take that risk, the report said, and cut programs.
It's been almost two years since the Liberals launched the program they promised during the 2015 campaign — to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of that year, at a cost of $250 million.
The deadline was later bumped back and the budget exponentially bumped up — just over $950 million has been set aside. One major increase came in settlement funding. Originally, $141 million was set aside to cover four years, but that budget was boosted to $257 million over five years when it became clear the Syrians were arriving with higher-than-expected needs.
While the resettlement program has been lauded the world over, one of the main criticisms was that the Liberals rolled out it without enough advance planning for what would happen once the Syrians actually arrived.
At one point, the pace of new arrivals was so fast, settlement organizations asked for a pause, while early issues with access to housing saw some refugees spend weeks or months in hotels, unable to get kids into school or start language classes.
The auditor general made four recommendations in the report, encouraging the Immigration Department to improve its systems for getting money out the door and tracking outcomes, while also ensuring service providers understand what's expected of them.
"This report, as well as the collective work undertaken to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has highlighted the importance of integration in building a strong society," Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in a statement.
"...That is why my department has taken, and will continue to take action to ensure that all newcomers, including refugees, are able to access the services they need to integrate successfully in Canada, and that service provider organizations have the support they need to provide high-quality settlement services."
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press