Quebec cancelled a mass distribution of welfare cheques to asylum seekers at the Montreal convention centre this week after facing concerns the operation stigmatized the migrants and could raise security concerns.
The province had initially planned to use the cavernous Palais des congrès in Montreal to hand out social-assistance cheques to more than 4,000 people, part of the wave of asylum seekers who have come across the Canada-U.S. border in recent months. The government announced on Tuesday it would carry it out elsewhere, attributing the decision to the fact that fewer people than anticipated needed to pick up their cheques by hand. The shift occurred less than 24 hours before the start of the planned three-day operation.
Groups working with the asylum seekers, who are mostly from Haiti, say they have been pressuring the provincial government for days to cancel the event at the convention centre, which they said unfairly put the asylum seekers in the spotlight at a time when some are questioning the cost of caring for them.
"By doing the event at the convention centre, it was stigmatization. We told the government it's unacceptable," said Ninette Piou, spokesperson for Concertation haitienne pour les migrants 2017, an umbrella group of 40 organizations created this month to help the asylum seekers. "They didn't think the decision through. Can you imagine, having 4,000 people come get cheques at the Palais des congrès?"
Ms. Piou also raised fears of disruptions by far-right groups, who have increased their public presence in Quebec in the wake of the arrival of the asylum applicants in the province.
"There was concern that people with right-wing tendencies could disturb it," Ms. Piou said. "We have a lot of antennas out, and we know what's happening. We were aware of it and the government was too."
The provincial government initially said it chose the convention centre because of the volume of recipients in temporary shelters who needed to pick the cheques up in person. On Tuesday afternoon, it said that those numbers have dropped to fewer than 3,000 as claimants leave shelters and obtain permanent addresses.
A spokesperson for the Quebec Ministry of Employment and Social Solidarity declined to comment on security concerns, but said it would ensure the process – which will now take place in five temporary shelters in Montreal – would go smoothly. "We are taking the necessary steps to ensure the good functioning and security of the operation," Antoine Lavoie said.
Political leaders in both Quebec City and Ottawa have struggled to maintain the perception that the surge of asylum seekers into Canada is under control, even while migrants are being housed in army tents at the Canada-U.S. border and at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
About 8,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Quebec from the United States since June, although the number of new migrants has been dropping.
Some of the public worries about the influx are being fed by Quebec politicians. François Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec has been closing in on the governing Liberals in public-opinion polling, has questioned whether Quebec can afford to support the migrants. "Honestly, we don't have the financial means to pay for the housing, health, [and] education for all these people for years," Mr. Legault said this month.
Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-François Lisée contrasted the treatment of the migrants with those of patients in long-term care facilities in Quebec.
"The government tells us it can't give two baths in [long-term care] and it costs $30-million. So how much will 8,000, 10,000, 15,000 asylum seekers who stay in Quebec cost over three years?" he asked last week. Mr. Lisée tweeted this month that Quebeckers are opposed to "illegal crossings" at the border and added, "An independent Quebec would have its border respected."
The province gives social support to asylum seekers under an agreement dating to 1996. About 90 per cent of adult welfare recipients in Quebec – there were over 325,000 in June – receive their cheques through direct bank deposit, meaning that they do not have to pick them up in person.
Welfare cheques for the asylum seekers start at $628 a month. The federal government says it is looking at getting the migrants temporary work permits while they wait for their asylum claims to be heard, a process that could stretch into months or years.