Canada is opening a migrant shelter in Ontario and pulling in police and civilian reinforcements from across the country to handle an accelerating influx of asylum seekers from the United States that shows no signs of abating.
The number of refugee claimants walking across the border between Quebec and New York State has reached 3,800 in the first two weeks of August – more than the total for the entire month of July, and nearly five times the number that arrived in June.
Ottawa sought to dispel concerns the cross-border influx has grown out of control as Canadians confront the sight of refugee-style border camps usually associated with global conflict zones. Federal authorities say the 60 Canadian army tents at the U.S. border in Quebec, and Thursday's announcement that temporary housing will be opened in Cornwall, Ont., are part of a concerted plan to deal with the surge of newcomers.
"There is no crisis here," Transport Minister Marc Garneau said on Thursday. "It is an extraordinary situation that is extremely well-managed."
The accommodations at a conference facility in Cornwall are intended to relieve pressure on Quebec as it deals with the mass arrival of asylum seekers. The site will offer 300 rooms for migrants and tents can be set up on the grounds.
But Ottawa is facing criticism that it has failed to avert a humanitarian drama. The Conservatives said the surge in asylum seekers amounts to an increase of 1,000 per cent in illegal border crossings into Canada since January, 2017, and the overland crossings themselves are "unsafe and illegal."
"The Liberals are attempting to put a Band-Aid on a giant hole in a dam that has already burst," Tory immigration critic Michelle Rempel said. "Creating more temporary housing in other provinces only encourages people to continue to cross the border illegally."
The army encampments in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., near the main border crossing between New York City and Montreal, are housing 1,200 migrants temporarily before they head to Montreal and other destinations.
The federal government is adding RCMP, border agents and immigration staff to handle the spike in applicants, most of whom are originally from Haiti, who hope to obtain refugee status. Ottawa is also trying to stem the flow northward by spreading the word to immigrant communities in the United States that people will not obtain asylum unless they can prove they are bona fide refugees. Only 50 per cent of applicants from Haiti were approved last year.
"Unless you are being persecuted or fleeing terror or war, you would not qualify as a refugee," Mr. Garneau said. "It's important to combat misinformation that is out there."
Despite the reassurances, federal officials were unable to provide details about the length of time it is taking to process refugee claims amid signs that the system is already backlogged. And there is no indication the messages aimed at diaspora communities in the United States are getting across.
The asylum seekers themselves appear willing to take their chances in Canada. Several headed north from the United States because of what they felt was a growing anti-immigrant climate under the Trump administration. Their experiences in recent weeks have validated their view that they are better off in Canada, even with an uncertain future, than south of the border.
"In the U.S., I was living with stress. Here, my baby is thriving. I feel joy here, I am proud of the way Canadians are welcoming us," Shirline Boirond, 36, said after taking her infant for a medical checkup in Montreal. She spoke outside a YMCA where several migrants are staying.
Ms. Boirond said she learned that Canada was open to newcomers by watching the news at her home in New Jersey. She walked across an irregular border crossing with Quebec in late July, and nothing so far in her treatment has changed that view. "They give health care, housing and food."
Several of the newcomers outside the YMCA clutched handouts listing the services – medical care, immigration processing, welfare – they could apply for while awaiting their refugee hearings. In the United States, by contrast, they were in a state of limbo, they said.
"This welcome isn't just theoretical, it is practical," said Jacquelin Pierre, who had lived in several U.S. cities and saw a dark future under President Donald Trump. "With that man's policies, I didn't want to stay."
The Trump administration is considering ending a program that gave Haitians "temporary protected status" after Haiti's 2010 earthquake.
The RCMP says it can handle the flow of asylum seekers who cross on foot from New York State before being arrested. But the force admits the sheer numbers – more than 7,500 since June – are on a new scale.
"They're unprecedented. We've never seen those numbers," said RCMP spokesman Claude Castonguay. "Though our officers are patrolling 24 hours a day, all year long, we've never seen such numbers coming in."
The NDP says the government must immediately suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires that people be sent back across the border if they claim refugee status after entering Canada through the United States. Since the agreement applies only to individuals who arrive at an official land border port of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being turned away by entering Canada through unauthorized crossing points.
"It's too bad that we've had to get to the middle of August before they [the government] finally realized there's an issue with camps in these communities and such," NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé said. "It's time for them to step up their game and be more aware of what's going on on the ground."
With a report from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa