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Politics Ontario presses for more cash for refugee legal aid but Ottawa says province already gets bulk of national funding

Doug Downey is sworn into his new role as Ontario's Attorney General at Queen's Park in Toronto on June 20, 2019. Downey is taking his fight for more money for refugee legal aid to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s attorney-general is taking his fight for more federal money for refugee legal aid to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Doug Downey, who took over as Ontario’s attorney-general in June, said he has received no response to his requests to federal Justice Minister David Lametti and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, calling on Ottawa to “properly fund” immigration and refugee legal-aid services in his province.

But the federal justice department says provincial allocations for immigration and refugee legal aid are calculated annually based on a formula that was agreed upon by all provinces and territories. It also denies there’s been a lack of communication.

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Mr. Downey has now written to Mr. Trudeau, asking him to instruct his ministers to reply to Ontario’s requests to fill what he says is a funding gap of $25-million.

The number of refugee claims in Ontario has soared by nearly 160 per cent since 2013, he says – a phenomenon he blames on the Trudeau’s government’s immigration policies.

“Because of their decision to increase the service need, we think they need to increase the service resources,” Mr. Downey said in an interview this week.

In the spring, the provincial Progressive Conservative government announced it was cutting funding for refugee- and immigration-law services provided by Legal Aid Ontario – a move that refugee lawyers and advocates have said will hurt vulnerable migrants and that the Immigration and Refugee Board has said will slow down its cases.

Mr. Downey argues immigration is a federal responsibility, so Ottawa should shoulder these costs. He says Ontario has not been receiving the same level of funding as other provinces for legal-aid services provided to immigrants – other provinces get upwards of 90 per cent of these costs covered while Ontario only gets 35 per cent, Mr. Downey says.

The federal justice department counters that the formula that was agreed upon by all provinces and territories "produces a fair distribution of the available federal funds and reflects case volumes across the country.

"Over the past five years, Ontario received 62 to 74 per cent of the total annual federal funding available,” said David Taylor, a spokesperson for Mr. Lametti, the justice minister.

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Mr. Taylor also takes issue with the notion that Mr. Lametti’s staff have not communicated with Ontario on its concerns over legal-aid funding.

Justice officials have been in regular contact with their provincial counterparts and Mr. Lametti discussed legal aid with Premier Doug Ford’s former attorney-general, Caroline Mulroney, earlier this year, Mr. Taylor said.

“The Ford government is well aware that provinces and territories are responsible for the management of their individual legal-aid programs,” he said, adding that the provincial cuts to legal aid have had a “damaging impact.”

“With that knowledge, Minister Lametti will be responding to the Ontario attorney-general.”

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