Asylum seekers living in hotels across the Greater Toronto Area have had their stays extended until at least January by the federal government – news that comes against a backdrop of political tension over refugee resettlement between the Ontario government and Ottawa.
While hundreds of refugees are currently living in Toronto’s hotels and motels, just 58 people are currently on the federal government’s tab. That number has thinned since its high point of 464 in July.
The emergency program was initially agreed upon during a time of pressure on Toronto’s shelter system that had forced asylum seekers into college dormitories for the summer. The hope in Ottawa is that Toronto and its community agencies can find housing for those remaining by January.
“Our government has a clear plan to address border-crossers,” said Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux, a spokesperson for Minister of Border Security Bill Blair, in an e-mail on Thursday, saying that a $173-million investment in border security and sped-up asylum claims was working. But the sentiment wasn’t shared at the provincial level. Tensions between the federal Liberals and Ontario have been rising since the Ford government demanded $200-million this summer to cover the cost of resettling the thousands of asylum seekers who illegally cross the Canada-U.S. border.
Ministers traded barbs on Thursday about the issue, with Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod saying the Trudeau government hadn’t shown an ability to deal with the flow of people crossing the border, affecting services in the province such as shelter costs and social assistance.
“The system as it is right now is broken, and the federal Liberals have no credibility because they haven’t been able to fix it,” Ms. MacLeod told The Globe and Mail. Ms. MacLeod said in Toronto, approximately 40 per cent of shelter occupants are refugees. The claim was later refuted by Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who said the shelter system does not collect statistics based on status.
Speaking on CBC’s Power and Politics, Mr. Hussen said that the Ontario minister has not engaged with Ottawa in trying to move asylum seekers away from Toronto. “Canadians expect all orders of government to work together when we have challenges,” he said. “The Province of Ontario chose to walk away.”
The hotels were supposed to be a temporary solution, with all individuals and families housed elsewhere by the end of September. The program was extended for the first time in October, adding another two to four weeks to the federal government’s tab.
Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, said the pressure on local refugees has alleviated somewhat without an immediate deadline to leave the hotels. The challenge now is finding someplace else affordable to live. “The housing workers, in desperation, are looking for empty places outside the city of Toronto,” he said.
Ontario withdrew its support for the resettlement of asylum seekers in July, with Premier Doug Ford saying Ottawa created the problem and should bear the full burden of fixing it. The former provincial Liberal government had pledged co-operation in handling the influx of asylum seekers, promising up to $3-million to help manage 800 temporary spaces in the dormitories.
Not all refugee claimants currently living in Toronto hotels and motels are part of the federally paid program – the city runs a separate hotel and motel shelter program, city spokesperson Natasha Hinds Fitzsimmins said in an e-mail on Thursday. The municipal program has grown by 648 hotel beds since April alone, according to city materials, in response to increased demand for shelter.
At Toronto City Hall, Mayor John Tory is banking on continued backing from Ottawa. "Mayor Tory remains confident that the federal government will continue to honour its commitment,” spokesperson Don Peat said by e-mail on Thursday.