It had been a long time since Marie Saintil had last been to church, when she found herself at the pulpit of the Faith Tabernacle in Welland, Ont., on a recent Sunday evening.
“Est-ce que tout le monde parle Créole?” she asked the small Haitian congregation, a half dozen or so of whom had been shuttled to the service in their Sunday best from the various hotels in nearby Niagara Falls where they are living. The congregation nods in unison – yes, they all speak Créole.
Ms. Saintil, a lawyer of Haitian background herself, was there that evening to deliver not a sermon, but a primer on the refugee claims process.
When she took a job with the Niagara Community Legal Clinic in January, she was looking for a change of pace after two decades of practising immigration law in Toronto. Instead, she has found herself in the throes of a migration crisis, with thousands of asylum seekers unexpectedly placed in a tourist town that is not equipped to absorb them, transferred by the federal government from Quebec after crossing at Roxham Road.
More than 2,841 asylum seekers have been transferred to Niagara Falls by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada since last June, spread across more than 1,400 hotel rooms in the city after being shuttled on from their arrival in Quebec.
Another 702 have been placed in Ottawa, 618 in Windsor, and 1,396 in Cornwall, according to the IRCC. They began transfers to Atlantic provinces at the end of last month, with 63 so far transferred to Halifax and 30 people transferred to Fredericton.
But nine months in – as understaffed settlement and social services scramble to support the newcomers, and with as many as one in 12 hotel rooms occupied as the city’s tourism season looms – tensions are starting to build.
“These people are taken from Roxham Road in Quebec, and they’re put into a bus, and they’re dumped. And the word is dumped – they’re dumped here,” Ms. Saintil said.
“And now they’re being told, you’re not really wanted because we have tourists coming … It was fine to have them here during the slow season, in the wintertime, but now that the tourists are coming, you’re not wanted.”
Ms. Saintil cannot represent them, she told the congregants at the church, as she handed out information packets and business cards. This has not been her clinic’s mandate, but she feels compelled to help given how few lawyers in the area do this work.
The migrants did not choose Niagara Falls. They ended up here after being repeatedly shuffled along by American and then Canadian authorities – perpetually treated as someone else’s problem. Regardless of where their journeys began, these migrants have often crossed several borders before arriving in Canada in an effort to flee violence, persecution and poverty – and have faced hostility along the way.
At the Mexico-U.S. border, thousands of people are crossing each day. And once in the United States, they have faced increasing hostility, including from political leaders in southern states such as Texas and Florida, whose Republican governors have transported thousands of asylum seekers to places such as New York, Washington and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
In New York, Democratic politicians have responded to an influx of migrants by offering one-way tickets to Plattsburgh, N.Y., a short distance from the Canadian border at Roxham Road.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S., asylum seekers must file their claims in whichever country they arrive in first, which means they will be turned back if they attempt to get into Canada at official border crossings. Because that agreement covers only official border points, crossings at the unofficial Roxham Road entry have risen sharply.
Now in Canada, the migrants are finding themselves unwelcome in Quebec, too. With the numbers at Roxham Road continuing to rise – close to 40,000 migrants entered Canada there last year – Quebec’s Premier François Legault has protested the “strain” the influx has put on his province’s social services and urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to shut it down, or send them elsewhere.
“Everybody is sending the ball to somebody else,” Ms. Saintil said. “It’s a blame game.”
With a population of 95,000 people, Niagara Falls depends heavily on tourism and is known as much for the massive falls that straddle an international border as it is for the garishness of its main drag, lined with haunted houses and wax museums. The city has upwards of 16,000 hotel rooms, Mayor Jim Diodati said, and at first the IRCC contracts seemed like welcome news for hotels that have been struggling after three years in a pandemic.
“We’ve got lots of rooms, we’ll do our part and help out as much as we can – that’s kind of the attitude as it started,” he said. But as the numbers began to grow, he said the mood has shifted. “They went from 87 to 300, to 687, to 1,500 ... And then we were told 1,700 and 2,000 were the next steps,” he said. “And, you know, we weren’t really sure how much we can handle, and at what point it would become disruptive, because we’ve never been through anything like this before.”
After a video call with Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and his staff last month, the mayor said he still doesn’t know how long the hotel rooms are booked for. He said he’s concerned about the impact on the coming tourism season, which he describes as the “the goose that lays the golden eggs here.”
“A tourist is going to spend money in restaurants, the attractions, the casinos, the wineries ... whereas these folks are just staying in the rooms,” he said. “A lot of people are counting on it to feed their families and pay their mortgages and pay their rents. So we’re asking, ‘What’s the plan?’ ”
IRCC spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald wouldn’t provide a timeline on how long the hotel rooms have been leased, citing confidentiality. In an e-mail, he said the department takes into account availability, cost, transportation and access to support services.
Mr. Diodati said he was told numbers were likely to peak in the coming weeks, as they began to transfer people to other areas, including the Atlantic provinces. But in the meantime, he warns the mood of the town has begun to shift. “Most conversations that people have with me start off with ‘I don’t want to be insensitive, and I’m not complaining … but where are we going with this?’ ” he said. “And we’re trying to get answers.” The mayor said he has asked the federal government for more money to help the city and local organizations keep up with demand. IRCC said in a statement that it was working with the local government to ensure they are prepared and to respond any concerns.
On a Friday evening almost one week after the mayor’s meeting with the immigration minister, the lobby of the Ramada hotel on Lundy’s Lane was crammed with 100 or so people lined up for dinner.
This type of scene, Ms. Saintil believes, is the real unspoken concern. “It just doesn’t look good to see all these refugee claimants in the hotels. That’s what it is,” she said. “It doesn’t look good in pictures with American tourists.”
On a frigid Sunday afternoon, Henry Carmona and a group of fellow Venezuelan migrants headed down from their hotel to take in the icy view of the falls.
The economic collapse and rise of political violence in Venezuela have led to one of the largest displacement crises in the world. It is a mass exodus that has sent a quarter of the country’s population – more than seven million people – fleeing to neighbouring Colombia and then onward.
It took these men years to get here. They each show off photos of the families they had to leave behind because of the dangerous nature of their journeys.
Truck drivers by trade, the men are eager to get their work permits, learn English and begin to find work. But they landed in Niagara only a few days earlier, bused in from Quebec after their arrival at Roxham Road.
They have appreciated their treatment in Canada so far, they said. They laughed as they took in the various gimmicky attractions on Clifton Hill. Next door to the Museum of the Stars, a stiff-moving dinosaur head called out to them from the Looney Tunes-esque Bone Blaster Shootin’ Gallery.
And though they’d expected to be in Quebec, they are content in Niagara for now; whenever their work permits are ready, they plan to go where the work is. Other asylum seekers who spoke with The Globe and Mail, some from Colombia and others from Haiti, said the same.
At the YMCA of Niagara, Deanna D’Elia, manager of employment and immigrant services, has scrambled to move some part-time workers to full-time in an effort to address the spiralling need.
Of their 65-member team, 25 or so are focused specifically on settlement. Others work on helping them find employment, though a major part of that process depends on work permits – which, given the backlog, can take many months or even years to be issued.
“Individuals and families have come to Canada to seek a better life and they are eager to work,” Ms. D’Elia said. In the meantime, many must rely on social assistance, which in today’s rental market can barely cover a room in the city. It’s a situation that she says has “amplified” discussions about the housing crisis, both regionally and across the province and country.
It’s a pressure that is being felt in social services across the region, which were under pressure even before the asylum seekers arrived.
On a recent Friday morning, Pam Sharp and her team at Project SHARE were preparing for a busy day at the largest food bank in Niagara Falls. They’d had to close the day before for an ice storm, and knew it was likely to be busier as a result.
Demand in the community was already very high. In addition to the food bank, they also provide homelessness prevention supports and other services, and served the equivalent of one in 10 residents last year, she said.
They see, on average, 100 families a day, and the infusion of 3,000 new vulnerable people is stretching them to their limits. Both the regional and city council have declared a state of emergency on homelessness, mental health and opioid addiction.
Ms. Sharp has noticed more and more asylum seekers coming in – for example, of the 157 families they served one day this week, 60 identified as asylum seekers – and the team has on occasion done outreach at the hotels directly.
“We want to make sure that anyone coming into our city is able to meet their basic needs,” she says.
Janet Medume, executive director of the Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre, which is leading the local settlement efforts. said they weren’t told in advance about the asylum seekers’ arrivals but began to hear word through community networks last summer. Since then, more than 20 community organizations have banded together to develop a strategy, but she said they need both funding and staffing boosts from all levels of government to keep up.
“Let’s inject more resources so we can focus on ensuring individuals get the help they need, and hopefully get employment quick enough, so we can get them out of there as soon as possible,” she said. “Give us those resources and we’ll be okay.”
At the church Sunday evening, Ms. Saintil lingered after the service, passing out information pamphlets and business cards. She wore a sad smile as she watched a trio of siblings – ages 8, 7 and 1 – playing in the foyer. The older two, sisters, showed off cartwheels and boasted about their favourite school subjects.
She urged their father to get them scarves for the cold weather, and he nodded enthusiastically. They’ve been here eight months in a hotel, Ms. Saintil said, after they waved goodbye. The parents were only recently able to meet with a lawyer for the first time.
“Everybody’s doing their best,” she said. “But if they’re hoping this is not going to be a crisis in a month or two, they have to start acting now.”
Asylum seekers in Canada: More from The Globe and Mail
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