The federal government is providing millions of dollars for the legal costs of refugee claimants as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to highlight Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s budget cuts with the fall federal election looming.
In remarks attempting to link the cost-cutting Mr. Ford to his federal Conservative counterparts, the Prime Minister pledged a one-time financing of $26.8-million for immigration and refugee legal aid for 2019-2020, almost all of which Ontario expects to flow to its legal aid system.
“Another Conservative government – the government of Doug Ford – is walking away from services to the most vulnerable,” Mr. Trudeau told an event at the offices of a refugee- and immigrant-settlement agency in Toronto’s west end. "Conservative politicians keep trying to move us back and make the most vulnerable hurt for decisions that they make.”
In a funding fight with Ottawa, Mr. Ford’s government blocked all use of provincial money in this area in April, arguing that covering the costs of the recent steep increase in refugee claimants was federal jurisdiction. (Ontario also cut funding for other types of legal aid by 30 per cent in its budget earlier this year.)
Ontario’s sudden move prompted refugee lawyers and advocates to warn that people fleeing torture or other violence could end up facing refugee tribunals without lawyers to help them.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ford’s other budget cuts, including for public health, prompted a battle with Toronto and other municipalities earlier this year that eventually forced him to back down. The federal Liberals have adopted a strategy of trying to link the Ontario Premier to federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, while some federal Conservative MPs have acknowledged hearing concerns about Mr. Ford from voters.
Mr. Trudeau said legal aid is a shared responsibility between the province and Ottawa, adding that Monday’s money will only sustain the program for a year, leaving up for discussion how it is paid for in future.
The new federal funding appeared to temporarily end this particular dispute with Queen’s Park. However, Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey told reporters Monday afternoon that he still didn’t know if the new money was meant as an addition to Ottawa’s current $16.9-million contribution to legal aid for immigrants and refugees in Ontario, or as a replacement. He said he expects a small portion of the funding will also go to other provinces.
“This one-time funding is troubling, because it creates uncertainty and it’s not stable," Mr. Downey said, pointing out that Ottawa took its time to reply to his province’s demands – only to produce the money months before an election.
Ontario released copies of several letters the province sent to Mr. Trudeau and his ministers dating back to March, demanding another $25-million in legal aid funding for refugees. In one letter dated July 18, Mr. Downey says some other provinces see Ottawa cover 70 to 90 per cent of these costs, while in Ontario it only pays 35 per cent.
Mr. Downey denied that his government’s decision to withdraw its legal aid funding for refugee claimants was a case of Ontario using vulnerable people in a game of chicken with Ottawa: “We were prioritizing the areas of responsibility that we have as a province.”
Lawyers who act for refugees welcomed the federal government’s announcement on Monday.
“Canada’s complex refugee system is nearly impossible to navigate without legal representation – all the more so for individuals who arrive in Canada with nothing, who are traumatized,” Raoul Boulakia, an executive member of the Refugee Lawyers Association of Ontario, said in a statement.
Charlene Theodore, vice-president of the Ontario Bar Association, called the recent lack of legal-aid funding for refugees and immigrants a crisis and said the federal response was timely.
“To be able to have this funding, to get the help on the ground where it’s needed, it’s just a great day for access to justice," she said.
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