Ontario Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney is calling on Ottawa to fully fund a $45-million provincial legal-aid program for immigrants and refugees in Tuesday’s federal budget.
In a letter sent to the federal ministers of justice, immigration and finance, Ms. Mulroney says costs associated with providing immigration and refugee services has “increased significantly” in Ontario as a result of federal government policies.
“Ontario must ensure we have a stable and sustainable system. Let me be clear, this was a federally created challenge, and one our government has called on you previously to fix,” Ms. Mulroney wrote in the letter sent Friday to Justice Minister David Lametti, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
“As you table your budget, I am confident that you will see the need to properly fund Ontario’s legal-aid program, and recognize that the failure to do so will place hardships on those who rely on this system.”
The latest salvo in the battle between Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government and the federal Liberals over the costs associated with immigration and refugee claimants comes as Ottawa is set to table its pre-election budget on Tuesday.
While the number of asylum seekers has been steadily decreasing over the past few months, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) – the arm’s-length body that adjudicates refugee claims – has struggled to keep pace with the number of new cases being added to its backlog of files.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has already demanded that Ottawa foot a $200-million bill to cover the costs of resettling thousands of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States. And Toronto recently said its proposed 2019 municipal budget will only be balanced if the federal government offers up $45-million to cover the costs of housing the influx of refugee claimants in the city’s shelter system.
Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a spokesman for Mr. Morneau, said the federal government recognizes the importance of proper funding for legal aid. Since 2016, he said, the federal government has increased its contribution for immigration and refugee legal-aid services in six provinces by more than $22-million.
“Our government understands that immigration plays an important role in driving our economy and has contributed to our success as a country. While the Conservatives continue to try to divide Canadians, by promoting fear and misinformation, we will continue to defend our immigration system,” he said.
Legal Aid Ontario, which is responsible for providing legal services to low-income Ontarians, estimates it will spend $45-million this year to deliver its immigration and refugee program, which includes IRB hearings and appeals to federal court. But Ms. Mulroney says the federal government is only contributing $16.9-million to the program, “leaving a shortfall of nearly $28-million that the province is expected to subsidize to support matters of federal jurisdiction.”
Last September, the federal government allocated an additional $10-million to Ontario, on top of a previously committed $7-million.
A report released last December from Ontario’s auditor-general, Bonnie Lysyk, shows Ontario’s portion has risen from $19.3-million in 2014 to $28.4-million in 2018.
The report said Legal Aid Ontario has “faced challenges managing the increase in refugee and immigration cases without a known increase of funding from the federal government," noting that Ontario receives a lower federal funding portion than other provinces.
It also found Legal Aid Ontario’s “rushed decision-making” in expanding eligibility for certificates contributed to $40-million in deficits over the past two years. A certificate allows a client to retain a private-sector lawyer on one of Legal Aid Ontario’s rosters.
Ms. Mulroney recently named a former Progressive Conservative attorney-general, Charles Harnick, as the new chair of Legal Aid Ontario.