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As Toronto struggles to find space for asylum seekers, other municipalities volunteer to help

A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Que. on August 11, 2017.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

After Toronto put out a call for help earlier this month, at least six Ontario municipalities have stepped up to take in asylum seekers from the resource-strained city.

Earlier this month, Toronto Mayor John Tory held a conference call with the Large Urban Mayor’s Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) – which is comprised of mayors from municipalities with more than 100,000 people – asking them to help take in some of the asylum seekers that have overwhelmed Toronto’s temporary housing space, and assured them that all costs would be taken care of by the city or the federal government.

“Generally speaking, hotel accommodations are being paid for by the federal government, with some exceptions, until the end of September,” city spokesperson Natasha Fitzsimmins said, adding that Toronto will cover other costs, including transportation.

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So far, eight cities and regions, comprising 19 municipalities in and out of LUMCO, have committed to taking in refugee claimants or are exploring the possibility; five municipalities said they would not take any; and the rest did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Some cities that have rejected the call for help, such as Ottawa, Kingston and Barrie, say they’re facing their own space issues.

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said the city “just doesn’t have anything available at all,” especially after a fire broke out in the city’s social housing building, pushing the city past its emergency shelter capacity.

Ottawa’s Housing Director Shelley VanBuskirk said the capital has its own influx of asylum seekers, which has provoked an “extensive emergency shelter response,” meaning the city can’t bail out Toronto.

Even when cities have the space, the issue can elicit intense emotions. After Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said he would be open to temporarily taking in a few dozen refugee claimants only until more space opened up in Toronto, a demonstration sprang up over the weekend in which protesters on opposing sides of the issue came to blows.

Some municipalities, such as Thunder Bay and Chatham-Kent, are eager for more immigration, but want to make sure those they take in will be the right fit.

“We have available jobs in Thunder Bay, it’s just a question of whose skill sets match what,” said the city’s Community Economic Development Commission chief executive officer Douglas Murray.

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Chatham-Kent Chief Administrative Officer Don Shropshire said the municipality is in need of people who are interested in living there long term.

“We’ve actually got a real need for some people to come in with some skill sets, and we think there might be some really great matches,” he said.

Of everyone who responded to the call, Hamilton and the Peel Region – composed of Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga – have been the most keen.

So far, Peel has committed 31 hotel and motel rooms to house refugees, and 77 people have moved in. Now, the region is working with them to find permanent housing and jobs.

Hamilton will take in 50 asylum-seeking families beginning Aug. 7. Mayor Fred Eisenberger said they will be housed mostly in hotels and motels in the city.

Mr. Eisenberger hasn’t heard of any push-back from his constituents – there certainly haven’t been any protests like the one in Markham, he said.

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Mr. Eisenberger said he is open to taking more asylum seekers in as others leave, keeping the number of families at around 50. That number “may be in place for years, depending on what the need is,” he said. “We’ve said that we’re open to helping, and that offer stands.”

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