Canada's border agencies are moving staff around in response to a rise in illegal crossings, but Ottawa has yet to announce a formal plan to deal with the rush of people arriving on foot from the United States seeking refugee status.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Tuesday that the federal cabinet is eager to hear any suggestions the RCMP or the Canada Border Services Agency may have for what Ottawa should do next.
"The situation is under very careful scrutiny by both the RCMP and by CBSA. They are enforcing Canadian law," Mr. Goodale told reporters. "They have made some rearrangements in the deployment of their resources to make sure that they can deal effectively with the situation. Should they recommend changes or adjustments or additions to what they have on the ground now, obviously the government would be anxious to have their advice."
Mr. Goodale's office said it could not provide details on operational matters such as how staffing levels have changed at specific border crossings. Mr. Goodale later signalled to the House of Commons that the government would be open to giving the agencies more money if necessary.
Increased crossings have primarily been an issue at the southern borders of Quebec and Manitoba.
The government points out that the recent increase in the number of refugee claimants under the asylum category – which is separate from refugees who are processed abroad – is still "well below" historical highs.
The number of asylum claimants from all countries reached a recent peak of 36,867 in 2008 and declined to a low of 10,401 in 2013 before climbing to 23,892 in 2016. As of Feb. 13, Canada has received 3,802 asylum claims.
However, the number coming from the United States appears to have increased since Donald Trump won the Nov. 8 presidential election, at least in Quebec.
For that province, data released by the RCMP on asylum claims processed at land-border ports of entry show 368 claims in November, 2016 – up from 93 in November, 2015; 593 claims in December, 2016 – up from 101 in December, 2015; and 452 claims in January, 2017 – up from 137 a year earlier.
The Canadian Council for Refugees has called on Canada to withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement, which Canada signed with the United States in 2004. The deal is aimed at preventing an individual in one country showing up at an official border crossing of the other to make a refugee claim. A concern that was highlighted when the deal was approved is that people could still make a refugee claim if they came in irregularly, meaning at a point that is not an official border stop.
Refugee advocates say this encourages claimants to put themselves in danger, especially during the winter. The Canadian Council for Refugees acknowledges that withdrawing from the deal would mean more refugee claimants would present themselves at official border crossings, but says it would be safer.
The NDP wants the Liberals to withdraw from the agreement immediately, saying policy positions taken by the new administration in Washington have created a sense of fear among refugees in the United States.
"We need to stop sucking up to Trump and stand up [to] racist, discriminatory policies," said Jenny Kwan, the NDP's critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship. "Right now, our government, our Prime Minister, is happy to sit and do nothing as people risk their lives, and I don't think that's good enough."
Conservative MPs also criticized the government on Tuesday, but struggled to provide a clear position on what the Liberals should do. Conservative MP Tony Clement ended a CBC Montreal radio interview on Tuesday after he was asked repeatedly for a concrete suggestion.
"I'm not the government. The CBC is not the government. It's up to the government to come up with a plan," Mr. Clement said shortly before hanging up during the live telephone interview.
Mr. Clement was more specific later in the day during Question Period. He said the recent rise in illegal crossings has particularly affected Emerson, Man., and Hemmingford, Que., and that the government should answer calls from communities for help and develop a plan to enforce and strengthen Canada's border laws if necessary.
"People running across farmers' fields illegally cannot continue," Manitoba Conservative MP Candice Bergen added. "It is not safe for the people who are running across the fields. It is not safe for the community."