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Martima, a personal support worker with West Neighbourhood House's Parkdale Assisted Living Program, cleans an apartment housing a senior, in Toronto, on April 17, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

They call them the “guardian angels,” the thousands of personal-support workers (PSWs), orderlies, cooks and janitors who have been toiling for months in Quebec’s beleaguered and often overwhelmed long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost all of them are women, many from racialized communities, including a disproportionately large number from Quebec’s Haitian community.

In recent days, one subset of this overworked, underpaid work force has received a lot of attention – asylum seekers.


Because, despite doing essential work that no one else would and literally putting their lives at risk, juggling multiple part-time gigs for as little as $13 an hour, many of these front-line workers could face deportation.

That’s disgraceful, and un-Canadian.

Lawyer and social entrepreneur Fabrice Vil has been leading the social-media campaign #JeMeSouviendrai (I will remember) to get the provincial and federal governments to “regularize” the immigration status of asylum seekers working as essential workers.

“This pandemic has shown us the human face and the real sacrifices of essential workers,” Mr. Vil said on the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle. “When people make a contribution to society, we need to recognize that contribution.”

Quebec Premier François Legault has been cool to the idea, but in recent days, in response to growing public pressure, he has softened his position a bit.

A little recent history helps explain the political volatility of this issue.

In 2017 and 2018, more than 37,000 people made an “irregular” border crossing and requested asylum in Canada. Most of them simply trudged up Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., exploiting a loophole in the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which said they could only be turned back at official border crossings.

Before he was Premier, Mr. Legault took a hard line on the asylum seekers, saying Quebec could not welcome “all the world’s misery” and demanding the Roxham Road crossing be shut down. It has been. Since March, there have been only 14 “irregular” crossings and all have been sent back to the United States. Yet, “Roxham Road” remains a dog-whistle term for anti-immigration proponents.

Let’s not forget that most of the asylum seekers have been working while waiting for their cases to be processed. Many have been working in long-term care for two or three years, invisible until the pandemic hit.

When the idea of granting residency to asylum seekers was first floated, the now-Premier rejected it out of hand, saying: “We can’t open the door and say, 'If you come here illegally, if you find a job, we’ll accept you as an immigrant.’ That’s not how it works.”

His critics responded by saying that, first of all, asylum seekers are not illegals. Further, they stressed that what is wanted is a special dispensation for those who work in health care facilities in these extraordinarily difficult times. The precise number is unclear, but believed to be at least 2,000.

Mr. Legault responded by promising to review their requests on a case-by-case basis, potentially accepting them as economic immigrants. (While immigration is a federal jurisdiction, this is a provincial program.) Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has tried to stay out of the fray, saying “all asylum claimants will receive a fair and full hearing on the individual merits of their claim."

Quebec’s Immigration Minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, has also announced a plan to recruit 550 temporary workers as PSWs and fast-track their permanent residency applications.

Around the same time, Quebec also announced a bold plan to hire 10,000 PSWs by offering a paid three-month training course and full-time jobs at $26 an hour. (About a $50,000 annual salary.)

The catch is that the program is only for Canadian citizens, so asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers are shut out again.

This sparked another wave of outrage.

Wilner Cayo of the advocacy group Debout pour la dignité says the exclusion adds insult to injury.

“These women were good when it came to working for a miserable salary,” he told CBC News. “But now that this work is going to be well paid, the thank-you they get is ‘You can’t be part of the program.’”

At a demonstration last week, the sentiment was well summarized on a protester’s sign, written in Haitian Créole: “Nou pap mouri pou gran mèsi!”

Translation: “We will not die for a 'thank you’ and we will not die in vain.”

Indeed, a proper thank-you must begin with granting permanent residency. Then full-time jobs. And speeding up family reunifications.

It’s the least we can do for these guardian angels, for services rendered selflessly.

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The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. says a refugee claimant must seek asylum in the first of the two countries they arrive in, but it doesn’t cover asylum seekers who arrive in Canada via non-official border crossings.

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