OTTAWA - Immigration Minister John McCallum says his suggestion there's a cultural element driving Syrian refugees to food banks was insensitive and he regrets it.
Food banks from Halifax to B.C. have reported serving hundreds of Syrians who have come to Canada since November, the month the Liberal government launched a major resettlement program to bring 25,000 people by the end of February and thousands more by the end of this year.
The question of why came up Wednesday at a Senate committee studying the refugee resettlement program and McCallum initially pinpointed two reasons: the fact refugees do not have high levels of income upon arrival and something else.
"There may be a cultural element," he said. "You have to remember the refugees are coming from an entirely different world.
"Our world is very different than their world. Sometimes they have been living in refugee camps; maybe it's the norm to be offered meals. I'm not overly concerned about this."
But later Wednesday McCallum met with reporters outside the House of Commons to take back those remarks.
"The remark I made about food banks I think was insensitive so I regret having made that comment," he said.
To date, about 27,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, spread among nearly 300 communities.
About 15,000 are government-assisted, meaning they receive a year of income support from the federal government linked to the size of the family and provincial social assistance rates.
For the 9,400 privately sponsored Syrians, their income is provided by private groups who are expected to provide the same level of support as social assistance rates as well, if not more.
The rest of the Syrians who have arrived have their costs shared between the federal government and private sponsors.
McCallum said the fact Syrians, or any Canadians, are using food banks raises broad issues about the adequacy of income levels.
"I think the fact we need food banks as a country at all says something to questions of inequality of income distribution."
McCallum's remarks to the committee drew instant criticism.
"I'm very surprised by the word cultural element of going to food banks," said Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, who came to Canada from Pakistan in 1980.
"I thought people go to food banks if you don't have enough food."
Another challenge linked to the income levels of government-assisted refugees has been finding housing they can afford. Private sponsors often line up accommodation for their new charges but government-assisted refugees work with settlement agencies to secure a spot.
The initial surge of arrivals coupled with high rents in cities like Vancouver and Toronto forced some refugees to remain in hotels for months, but about 98 per cent are now in permanent homes. However, agencies are already working to ensure they don't lose them by using money from the private sector to provide additional rental funds.
The Liberal government has earmarked nearly $1 billion for the Syrian refugee resettlement program and have said a full breakdown of how that money has been spent so far would be made public by the end of this month.
McCallum had told the committee there was more that could be done to support the government assisted refugees, though did not provide details.
In addition to the refugees already in Canada, thousands more are awaiting final approval on the applications submitted by private sponsorship groups before the end of March.
Those groups had originally been told their requests would not be met before 2017 but after an outcry, McCallum agreed to finalize the files by the end of this year or early next and additional staff have now been sent overseas to process the files.