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Canada Ottawa says it can’t help with Toronto migrant problem until Doug Ford takes office

With Toronto’s shelter system jammed with refugee claimants and Mayor John Tory demanding urgent help, the federal government says it can’t act until Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government is sworn in and signs off on a co-ordinated plan.

Premier-designate Doug Ford, who has pledged to slash government spending, won the June 7 election and is expected to be sworn in and unveil his cabinet on Friday.

Toronto Mayor John Tory stands before the media on Tuesday April 18, 2017. The mayor of Canada's most populous city says Toronto can no longer accommodate new waves of refugees and asylum seekers in its shelter system without help from the federal and provincial governments.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A spokesman said Mr. Ford was looking closely at the refugee issue but wouldn’t comment before his swearing in. “This is a very pressing issue for the people of Toronto and Ontario. We will have more to say about this in the near future,” Simon Jefferies said.

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But federal immigration officials point to Ontario’s election campaign, and the lack of a sitting elected government, as a sticking point. Officials from all three governments have been in talks since April, and city officials have previously said the provincial election campaign was holding up progress.

In a letter sent to Mr. Tory on June 22 and released to the media on Tuesday, federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says Ottawa is awaiting the appointment of an Ontario government so the province can participate in a new “triage” system, similar to one in place in Quebec, to send refugee claimants now headed into Toronto’s jammed shelter system to other Ontario cities.

In his letter, Mr. Hussen says the federal government is ready to implement the new system “on an expedited timeframe,” but that the province must “identify temporary housing sites.” And he says he looks forward to “our mutual engagement” with the province’s yet-to-be-named housing or immigration minister.

This week, Mr. Tory issued the latest in an escalating series of public warnings to Ottawa and Queen’s Park that the city has all but run out of space and staff to handle the wave of asylum seekers that has arrived in recent months, with more than 3,000 now in the city’s shelter system.

The mayor warned in a letter sent to all Toronto MPs on Monday that the city can no longer accommodate new refugee claimants. And he said that the more than 600 refugee claimants – a tally expected to hit 800 shortly – housed temporarily in two Toronto college dormitories face an uncertain future, as those spaces must be vacated by Aug. 9, before students return.

Referring to this deadline, Mr. Hussen points to a $50-million “initial funding commitment,” $11-million of which he says will flow to Toronto, and says if the new triage system can be launched “reducing pressure on Toronto would be greatly facilitated.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning in advance of a city council debate on a staff report stating that the shelter system has hit its limit for refugee claimants, Mr. Tory said Toronto has always welcomed refugees, noting that his own family helped sponsor a family from Syria.

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Mr. Tory insisted the issue was primarily the federal government’s and that Ottawa has “moral” obligation to help. He has also stressed that his city needs to recoup its costs for sheltering refugees – $64.5-million at last count.

Asked whether the provincial election was a factor, the mayor said city officials have been in constant touch with their provincial counterparts.

“I am just not sure whether it’s really caused any delay or not,” the mayor said. “The bottom line is whatever timetable it is they are on now, we need the governments to speed up notifying of us of actual, tangible steps they are going to take to be in partnership with us to look after these people.”

The federal government has said it needs better data from the city on just who is in the shelter system and what their refugee status is.

In an interview, Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said the city had failed to do more to get homeless people out of its shelters to be ready for emergencies, and cast doubt on the numbers provided by the city on refugees.

A report by city bureaucrats shows that as of June 13, there were 3,191 refugee claimants housed in the city’s shelter system, making up more than 45 per cent of capacity.

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With a report from Justin Giovannetti

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