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Rift exposed between Quebec, federal government over handling of asylum seekers

A family, claiming to be from Columbia, is arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers near Champlain, N.Y., on April 18, 2018.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Premier of Quebec and the federal Immigration Minister have each accused the other level of government of ducking responsibility for an anticipated summertime surge of asylum seekers from the United States, cracking the united front they presented in last summer’s migration crisis.

The rift was exposed as officials from the provinces met with the federal government on Wednesday evening to discuss their strategy for coping with an influx of irregular border crossers, particularly in Quebec.

Quebec Immigration Minister David Heurtel said there was a “change in tone” from Ottawa as he emerged from the meeting which lasted more than an hour longer than planned. He and his federal counterparts announced a few measures to bridge the gap including a plan to send asylum seekers to the provinces where they intend to live while they settle their refugee status instead of keeping them all in Montreal. Cost remains an outstanding question but Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who chaired the meeting and struck a conciliatory tone, promised they will find common ground on money too.

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Some 25,000 asylum seekers arrived in the province last year, 75 per cent of whom walked across the border. Quebec normally receives about 3,500 claimants.

Quebec raised the alarm this week, saying the number of people crossing at a makeshift border post between New York State and Quebec is already at 6,074 for the year – three times greater than last year’s pace. The province asked Ottawa to help cover the costs, including $146-million Quebec spent providing extra services last year. Refugees and asylum seekers normally fall under federal jurisdiction, but provinces often provide emergency housing, education, health-care and welfare payments.

Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen sent a letter to his Quebec counterpart accusing him of closing nine of the 13 emergency shelters the province opened last summer, risking an “unacceptable humanitarian situation” if projections of higher levels of migration prove correct. He also said the province has failed to provide sufficient details for its financial demands.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard fired back on Wednesday by pointing out that schools and Montreal’s Olympic Stadium were among the makeshift shelters used during last summer’s emergency. The province, which normally has one shelter in Montreal, has created three additional ones, which can house 1,850 people. They are already at 70-per-cent capacity and Quebec is asking for Ottawa’s help if more are needed.

“The federal government has to realize what’s going on on the ground. I realize Ottawa is a bit distant from reality. But their response is really unacceptable,” Mr. Couillard said. “They are showing a complete misunderstanding of the reality on the ground, both what we experienced last year and will experience again this year.”

Stephan Reichhold, who represents an umbrella organization of Quebec immigrant and refugee service groups, said the lack of federal-provincial solidarity is troubling.

“This is very concerning – that there might be this quarrel on the backs of a very vulnerable population is very worrisome,” Mr. Reichhold said. “It does seem like the federal government should take a greater share of the burden, but right now they’re burying their heads in the sand. We got through it last year. It was a bit chaotic, but what worries us now is that they don’t seem to be listening to each other.”

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Mr. Reichhold said service groups are “out of breath” after an intense year. “It’s going fairly well, nobody is in the street, but we need more resources,” he said. “Our people found 10,000 affordable lodging [spots] for people last year. It’s quite something.” But, he added, the situation remains quite manageable at the moment.

Mr. Heurtel said the situation has changed from a temporary crisis to a permanent intake that must be dealt with by Ottawa, particularly given that some 40 per cent of arrivals have no intention of staying in Quebec once their immigration hearings are settled – a process that is now facing long delays.

Mr. Hussen told the House of Commons that the government spent an extra $112-million on the settlement of newcomers in Quebec and issued 12,000 work permits in the province. “We are working very closely with Quebec,” he said. “We will continue to work closely with Quebec.”

The rush of migrants began last year after U.S. President Donald Trump took office and started cracking down on immigration. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed Canada’s openness to asylum seekers, which was interpreted around the world as an open-door policy. The end of special status in the United States for Haitian immigrants displaced by disaster caused many to turn their attention to Canada.

An occasional clandestine crossing known as Roxham Road, south of Montreal, soon became known as the unofficial entrance to Canada. At the height of last year’s migration, 250 people were crossing every day. Now that word has spread, Quebec projects the numbers may peak at 400 a day. As many as half of asylum seekers coming to Quebec from around the world are taking ground transportation to Roxham Road as soon as they land in the United States, according to the province. Nigeria is a currently among the more common countries of origin. The others are mostly U.S. residents who have uncertain immigration status under the Trump administration.

All of this is taking place while an unofficial Quebec election campaign has already started – even though the vote takes place Oct. 1. Opposition parties have assailed the Quebec Liberal government for taking the brunt of the migration crisis while failing to defend the province’s interests with Ottawa.

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