The federal government's goal is to have Afghans who assisted Canada and now face danger on planes out of the war-torn country as quickly as possible, says Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Freeland has responded to criticism after the Immigration Department released an application form on Wednesday for eligible Afghans to fill out within just 72 hours, a timeline which it walked back later in the day.
She told reporters Thursday that the government's desire is to move "very, very quickly" with the process, and that sense of urgency is what has driven its approach, rather than any attempt to restrict anyone from coming.
Last week her government announced new immigration measures for what it described as potentially "several thousand" Afghans, including interpreters who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces, staff currently or previously employed at the Canadian Embassy and their families.
The measures, although light on details, followed growing concern within Canada's veterans' community after the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan emboldened the Taliban to ramp up its offensive and exact revenge on those who helped western forces.
Veterans and interpreters have criticized the rollout of the new measures, saying that an Adobe Acrobat application form published in English makes little sense in a country with low literacy and patchy internet, and that calls to the immigration minister's office have been met by answering machines.
They have also raised concerns about whether extended family members will be included in the immigration effort, as they say the Taliban is not only targeting interpreters' spouses and children but also their parents, siblings and other relatives.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called the three-day application deadline initially given to Afghans "the height of hypocrisy" and "wrong."
“While the Trudeau Liberals sat on their hands for weeks and failed to put forward a plan to help these brave Afghans — they are now giving these same individuals three days to save their lives," he said in a statement.
“Canadians and these brave Afghans can’t afford more of this incompetence from Liberals. This artificial date set by the Trudeau government must be immediately dropped. Canada’s Conservatives are calling on the Liberal government to do the right and only thing — extend the deadline for these Afghans and their families to apply to come to Canada."
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Wednesday that the 72-hour application timeline is not a "firm'' one and submissions outside that window will still be processed.
"We have also engaged support staff to assist clients with language barriers in submitting their applications and requested documentation," added Emilie Simard.
Freeland stressed that the government is not attempting to restrict the right of people who served Canada to relocate to the country.
"What we are really, really focused on is ensuring that the logistics work and that these brave people have a chance to come to Canada," she told reporters in Lakefield, Ont. "I am sure they will make great Canadians."
She also said the plight of Afghans who helped Canada during its combat mission in the country is of personal significance to her, as a former journalist whose husband reported from Afghanistan.
"There's been a lot of personal concern in my home about this," she said.
"Speaking as a minister of the Crown, let me say to all of the people in Afghanistan who worked to support the important work that the government of Canada was doing there: We are very, very grateful for your work and we absolutely recognize the responsibility we have towards you and your families."