Access is a four letter F word (Fair)


March 2023 / Toronto

My inbox has been filled these past weeks of this new year with pleas for support for women facing deportation orders, some with Canadian born children still breastfeeding.

In almost all cases they’ve exhausted all appeals and have thrown themselves on the mercy of the Canadian government by filing a Humanitarian and Compassionate (H&C) application. An H&C can take up to three years or more to process, and does not delay or stop a deportation order. The success rates is less than fifty percent.

What a position of no choice these women are placed in. If it were you, what would you do? Leave your breastfeeding baby behind without you to an uncertain future? Take them with you to a certain future of deep poverty and an insecure safety?

In another section of my inbox, there are many requests for interviews from reporters wanting comments about Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) decision to transport individuals and families arriving through Roxham Road in Quebec to Ontario. And more recently the rest of Canada.

The government has moved people who arrived through Roxham Road to make an asylum claim, to Ontario – first to the Niagara region in southern Ontario, later arrivals to Cornwall, and now to various parts of the province outside of the GTHA. IRCC called on community agencies in the immigrant and refugee serving sector to step up to help. There was an expectation that these agencies would ensure that individuals and families would be contacted and services provided to them at the various hotels where they are being housed.

The catch- IRCC wouldn’t pay for the work. Why? Because these people are claimants. Not convention refugees or permanent residents, the only groups that the federal government covers through its settlement and integration funded programs. Outrageous, especially so, in this instance. I’ll return to this.

My first comment to journalists and others wanting to discuss Roxham Road begins with this standard statement: It is NOT illegal to seek safety and protection in Canada. People are constrained to cross at Roxham Road and other unofficial border points specifically because of the Safe Third Country Agreement Canada has with the United States. To cross at official border points means a return to the USA whose immigration and refugee determination systems are not fair, and in some cases do not recognize the same grounds for refugee status as Canada.

A case in point, is a woman fleeing intimate partner violence, particularly where the partner is a member of the security forces or other powerful position within the society. While Canada recognizes Gender-based violence (GBV) as grounds for protection, the USA does not. This woman crossing at an official border point would automatically be turned back to the USA where she would most probably be deported back to the violence she had escaped.

I use the example of GBV to be illustrative. The point is that people have a right to seek asylum from persecution, a right guaranteed by the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. And my message to journalists is that forty thousand people irregularly crossing our border with the USA in a year isn’t a flood when we think of the hundreds of millions of displaced people across the globe in need of a safe refuge

The families and individuals transported to Ontario hail from various countries - from Afghanistan to Haiti, and Venezuela to the Democratic Republic of Congo. They come in groups of forty or fifty people. They are families and individuals, with single men far outnumbering single women. The majority of people are of working age between 18 to 49. The number of children fluctuates depending on the group. In the end, these are people in search of a safe landing.

For the most part, there has been an outpouring support for these arrivals from OCASI member agencies across the province. They have stepped up and in a short time have put in place supports from interpretation to clothing; legal services to housing search supports; work permit applications to language training to employment search support. In the last months of 2022 and continuing in the early months of this year, our member agencies continue to work to ensure that no one falls between the cracks. They’ve turned on a dime to coordinate service responses. They’ve redeployed already overloaded staff and called in favours from their broad and diverse networks.

All of this with nothing more than an expectation from IRCC that this work will be done. No funding support and no offer to pick up some of the costs. Our member agency in the Niagara area who has taken the lead on this, including coordinating other service providers (and working very closely with our Francophone member agency in the Hamilton area) receives no funding from IRCC for any of their programs. And yet the leadership has said yes to supporting the newly arrived refugee claimants, stretching the already limited dollars from the provincial Newcomer Settlement Program. These agencies, including those in Ottawa serving the people who were moved to Cornwall are the standouts in this ongoing saga.

The operations leadership in the Ontario government’s Immigration Branch - Settlement program has also stepped up. Responsive, finding additional dollars for the service agencies working with the new arrivals, attempting to coordinate information with their federal counterparts, they continue to play an important supportive role to the sector. We are proud of our province. But it is not sustainable.

The Ontario government’s spending on immigration settlement is about a quarter of what the federal government budgets for settlement programming in Ontario. And the province has been working to ensure that these funds are used to provide services to those who are not served by the federal dollars included citizens who still need some settlement supports including language training, refugee claimants, and those who are undocumented as well as migrant workers and international students. As it is the funds are insufficient to meet existing needs. Add more service demands and the situation becomes untenable.

There is a solution to this funding problem. IRCC must extend service eligibility to refugee claimants and other temporary residents. We know that it is doable, because we’ve spent the last year doing exactly that with federally funded services to Ukrainians who are here on temporary visas, but are able to submit refugee claims just like the people crossing at Roxham Road. Why the differential treatment?

We have long championed the Ontario funding model for refugee and im/migrant services as the one to be adopted by the federal government: services based on need and not on immigration status. This is the humanitarian approach. This is how we ensure equity in the system.

Expanding service eligibility for federal Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) funds is a longtime advocacy priority for OCASI and the Sector. We now call on the Provincial Government to join us in this appeal. We are calling on Minister McNaughton and Premier Ford, to rally their Provincial and Territorial counterparts to pressure Minister Sean Fraser and PM Trudeau to fund the required services for the arrivals through Roxham Road and for all Refugee Claimants, Temporary Workers, International Students and people without immigration status. This is urgent. The time is now for Immigration Canada to step up and provide the necessary funds for the agencies who have answered their call.

For the mothers (parents) facing deportation that I mentioned in my introduction, neither is the answer. These are not real choices. The correct and best answer is a moratorium on deportations until a regularization of status program is introduced. A promise made by the federal government in its last campaign and included in the mandate letter of immigration minister Sean Fraser. There is an urgency to this. It’s time for IRCC to let us know when we can expect a regularization framework to be rolled out.

In Solidarity!