THUNDER BAY — A local veteran of the Afghanistan conflict and Thunder Bay MP Marcus Powlowski hope their efforts to help Afghans who worked for the Canadian government and military are about to pay off.
The federal government announced last week that it is implementing special immigration measures to extract Afghan nationals threatened by the advance of the Taliban as U.S. forces withdraw.
About 800 Afghans including immediate members of workers' families were able to resettle in Canada over the past decade, but many remain behind, and have become targets of the Taliban.
They include interpreters, cooks, drivers, security guards, construction workers and others who assisted 40,000 members of the Canadian Forces during a mission that lasted from 2001 to 2014.
Thunder Bay - Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski says the government's announcement creates "a path to the future in Canada" for these people.
After he was elected in 2019, Powlowski picked up the cause that had already been adopted by his predecessor, MP Don Rusnak.
He said he's advocated for help for Afghan nationals both within the government and with veterans and private organizations who have lobbied the Canadian government to take action for years.
This included having his staff work for months with veterans to identify cases of contractors under threat, double-checking their documents and finding former Canadian soldiers who appeared in photos with them in order to confirm interpreters' references.
Powlowski said he felt Canada had a moral obligation not to abandon the Afghans who helped protect Canadian lives during the conflict.
"They risked their lives for Canada. They've earned our respect and the opportunity to come here to live and work."
It's a sentiment shared strongly by Robin Rickards who served three tours in Afghanistan while a member of the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment.
He's part of a group of veterans and other volunteers that's been working to collect information and documents to help Afghan nationals pursue admission to Canada.
The group has also provided assistance, including money in some cases, to Afghans and their families to escape Taliban-controlled territory and find safety until they can get out of the country.
"We try and provide them with resources that vary wildly. Sometimes it's as simple as information on where a Taliban checkpoint might be," Rickards said in an interview Tuesday.
Rickards' involvement in the lobbying effort began "with a couple of my buddies from my time over there who I had approached a number of different elected officials about over the years. It was finally Don Rusnak to some degree and Marcus to a significant degree, who really bit into it and took on the task aggressively to help these people out of a situation that their service to Canada put them in."
He's cautiously optimistic some of them will eventually relocate to Thunder Bay, but said "the government has made a lot of promises, but we're still waiting for an actual plan and to see that plan put in motion."
Rickards said that where the Afghans who are accepted by Canada ultimately wind up living will be up to them, but he'd be "thrilled" to be able to visit them and hang out with them again.
"There's the two that I've been advocating for forever, and there's a couple I've been in contact with as a result of this work, who I think would prove to be valuable additions to the community."
Powlowski noted that any interpreters who move to Thunder Bay will arrive with strong English language skills, which will help them adjust to their new environments more quickly.
Both men, whose efforts were recognized in a recent story in the New York Times, feel it's urgent that the Canadian government move quickly.
"The Taliban have repeatedly threatened the families. We know of a case where the parents were threatened with kidnapping unless their son – who was an ex-interpreter – came back to face the music, so the family had to flee the village," Powlowski said.
He credits Rickards for his perseverance on the issue, saying "he continues to represent the highest levels of heroism and sacrifice that we have come to expect from all of our men and women in uniform."
NOTE: Late Wednesday afternoon, CBC News reported it had learned that applicants to enter Canada under the new program have been given only three days to apply, a deadline that will be difficult for some prospective immigrants to meet.