MPs agree to urgent summer study of asylum seekers surge


OTTAWA — Under mounting pressure from opposition MPs, the House of Commons immigration committee will meet at least two times before early August to study the simmering issue of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States.

Committee members agreed Monday during a rare summer session to review the government’s response to the irregular border crossers, inviting testimony from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Jean-Yves Duclos, the minister for families, children and social development.

Members gave a unanimous nod to future meetings after squabbling at length over details and debating the legality of asylum seekers crossing at wooded spots between official ports of entry.

“I believe what the committee decided today was to ensure that Canadians hear the truth, get the story from the government about what their work is, what they are doing, what remains to be done,” said Liberal MP and committee chairman Rob Oliphant following a testy two-hour meeting.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel and her NDP counterpart, Jenny Kwan, have been pushing the Liberal government to learn more about its plan to deal with the influx of border crossers.

Kwan reiterated her view that Donald Trump’s America is not a “safe country.”

Canada’s Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S. stipulates that asylum seekers are required to make their claims in the first “safe” country where they arrive — meaning those who come into Canada at an official land crossing are sent back to make their claim in the U.S.

The agreement does not cover “irregular” or “illegal” asylum seekers — those entering Canada at unofficial points, most notably in Quebec.

According to new numbers released Friday, the RCMP intercepted 1,263 people at the border in June, which is down from 1,869 in May.

However, in April, the Mounties intercepted 2,560 people at the border.

Opposition members of the committee expressed concern they wouldn’t have sufficient time to question each minister at the coming meetings.

Liberal members rejected an amendment from Rempel that would have ensured each minister had one hour to testify.

Rempel said she wanted each minister to appear individually so that “it’s not a talking point festival” and to guarantee that MPs would have plenty of time for questions.

Rempel primarily wants to know how the federal government is accounting for the $50 million its giving to provinces to address the issue. Of the $50 million, $11 million will be provided directly to the City of Toronto to help with housing.

Liberal MP Serge Cormier told reporters that the money is coming from the “Parliament contingency plan” and reiterated that the cash is there to help provinces handle the situation.

Cormier said the province of Ontario, which has a new Conservative government, doesn’t “want to be at the table” so they’re steering the money directly to Toronto.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the direct funding was required after Ontario chose to withdraw from its “jurisdictional responsibility around housing.”

Rempel, along with the support of three other opposition members, triggered Monday’s emergency meeting by introducing the initial motion, which called on the committee to undertake a study to review the “adequacy” of the government’s response.

Liberal members voted to axe the word “adequacy” from the motion.

Rempel said she thinks the Liberal MPs opted to flank Hussen with additional ministers because he needs all the support he can get.

“He hasn’t been able to answer questions adequately,” said Rempel, who called his communications with provincial leaders in Winnipeg last week “abysmal.”

Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press