TORONTO — Just a week after Doug Ford took office, the rift between his new Tory government and Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals appears to be growing as they verbally spar over funding for refugees and asylum seekers in the province.
On Friday, the Ontario government said it faces a “looming crisis” next month if Ottawa doesn’t help find space for refugees and asylum seekers currently sheltered in college dorms.
Lisa MacLeod, provincial minister in charge of immigration, urged Trudeau to commit federal resources to relieve overcrowding in Toronto’s shelter system.
About 800 refugee claimants and asylum seekers are staying in Toronto college residences that must be vacated on Aug. 9 before students return to campus.
“Those college dormitories are for students who are returning in the fall,” MacLeod said. “That space will be needed. … This is something that is very urgent. It is pressing. We have a looming crisis.”
MacLeod said she has submitted a request for funding and a list of federally owned spaces in the city where the people could be housed.
The federal government has so far offered $11 million in funding to the province, but MacLeod said that will cover a fraction of the costs incurred in Toronto alone.
“What I’m simply saying to the federal government (is), you have resources, you have assets in the city of Toronto, you’re going to need to use those,” she said. “We’re at capacity now.”
But Ottawa appeared to show signs Friday it may not hand over the millions in funding if Ontario isn’t a “willing partner” on the immigration file.
“That money was earmarked to deal with immediate housing pressures,” said Mathieu Genest, press Secretary for federal Minister Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen. “We will need to make sure that Ontario’s a willing partner before that money flows just to make sure that that money is actually going to support the things we need it to support.”
Genest said the federal government is aware of the Aug. 9 deadline and will help the City of Toronto.
“There’s a number of options that could end up being the final one that is selected,” he said. “We’re working with Toronto to make sure that we have a plan in place to deal with that situation.”
MacLeod’s comments come a day after Premier Doug Ford said Trudeau had put a strain on local and provincial services by encouraging foreigners to come to Canada illegally.
Ford issued a statement just before his first meeting with Trudeau on Thursday, saying the federal government should foot 100 per cent of the bill for resettling the newcomers.
MacLeod repeated Friday that she thinks there has been “irresponsibility on the part of the federal government” by inviting “illegal” border crossing but declined to offer alternatives.
“I am not going to provide Justin Trudeau with solutions,” she said. “He has a government that he can run, and he can choose to work us or he can choose to work against us.”
Meanwhile, a group of refugee advocates co-signed a statement Friday afternoon urging the Ontario government to stay engaged in “intergovernmental collaboration” on the refugee and asylum seeker issue.
“Ontario has called on the federal government to cover the costs of refugee resettlement. If they really want the province and municipalities to be compensated they must be at the table” said Francisco Rico-Martinez of the Ontario Coalition of Service Providers for Refugee Claimants. “It is inhumane to risk making refugee claimants homeless to make a political statement. It is in violation of our international obligations and tradition, and Canadian values of social justice and human rights.”
Monica Boyd, a University of Toronto sociology professor who studies immigration, said the issue has always been a point of conflict between the federal government and the provinces and this is just the latest example.
“There’s a fundamental tension between who makes the policy and where people go,” she added.
Boyd said Canada, and its provinces, have been long-standing co-signators to international agreements which give asylum seekers legal rights.
“Canada does indeed have an obligation that goes back 50 years and it has always been a leader in the notion that refugee claimants do have certain rights,” she said.
Earlier Friday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said municipalities across Ontario have offered to help handle the influx of asylum seekers, saying they have jobs available for refugee claimants and asylum seekers.
Tory meet with Trudeau on Friday morning to discuss the issue.
In a radio interview before the meeting, the prime minister condemned leaders who engage in anti-migrant rhetoric.
“Unfortunately conservative politicians here and around the world are playing a very dangerous game with something that shouldn’t be fodder for division,” Trudeau said on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.
“Canadians are supportive of immigration and accepting refugees. They need to be reassured, as they can be, that we have a system in place that is going through all the processes.”
Meanwhile, some of those tasked with helping to house the newcomers say the disagreement between Ottawa and Ontario over the issue has left them in limbo.
Sojourn House, a Toronto shelter, launched a program to resettle families in March due to demand, said its executive director, Debbie Hill-Corrigan.
Hill-Corrigan said she’s now unsure whether the provincial government will continue to support the program as part of a three-year agreement signed with the previous administration.
The shelter has been operating at capacity since November 2017, she said.
– with files from Liam Casey, Alanna Rizza and Gabriele Roy.