Cornwall, Ont. calling for more federal resources to help with influx of asylum seekers

Asylum seekers crossing into Quebec from the United States continue to arrive in Cornwall, Ont. and the city says it needs federal help to handle the situation.

Around 800 people are now being housed in Cornwall at the Dev Centre and the former Ramada Inn on Brookdale Avenue, after crossing the Canada-U.S. border at Roxham Road into Quebec.

“This has been an ongoing situation for some time now,” said Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale. “We got statistics from last week that tell us that since August of 2022, the city has seen just under 1,400 asylum claimants come through the city itself.”

Towndale says the city is not equipped to handle this kind of pressure, and they have heard next to nothing from the federal government.

“My opinion is that the federal government has essentially downloaded services onto a municipality which typically does not happen,” Towndale said.

“As things were progressing and more and more was happening, the city realized that we weren’t getting a lot of information at the time,” he said. “So myself, our local MP and our senator decided that it was time to press for answers because the city felt like we were being left in the dark and our residents were as well.”

While the federal government is paying for the housing, Towndale says the city is also incurring administrative costs, which could balloon to more than $2 million dollars.

“The city is responsible for 50 per cent of all administration in relation to provincial programs, and right now the asylum claimants are eligible for some provincial programs, so they are filing requests for these programs and we are processing that administration but it has increased our administrative burden,” Towndale said.

“It also includes things like economic development,” he added. “When we talk about the municipal accommodation tax at our hotels that are currently used, we have 500 hotel rooms that are offline currently, so that impacts tourism, our tourism tax and other factors as well.

“We want to help, Cornwall wants to help, we want to do what we can, but we need the resources to do that,” Towndale said.

Conservative MP for the area, Eric Duncan, issued a statement on the situation, and appeared before city council on Feb. 13, blaming the federal government on their inaction.

“Zero notice, zero consultation, zero resources, I think equals about zero respect for our local communities that are being impacted by this,” Duncan told council.

“Here we are six, seven months into a process and we’re still, I believe, local officials and local voices are trying to speak up to get the most basic of services and coordination done,” he added.

“The need for the federal government to understand that any community that they have a processing centre or a contact like this in, they need people on the ground here to be the pinwheels and coordinators between all the different services,” Duncan said. “Without that I don’t think anybody is being well served.”

In an emailed statement to CTV News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said, “The world is facing unprecedented flows of migrants and refugees” and that the Government of Canada encourages asylum claimants to enter Canada at designated ports of entry.

“However, asylum claimants are a vulnerable group, and Canada has obligations under the refugee convention that do not apply to other areas of immigration,” it reads. “As the strain on resources in Quebec and Ontario continues, IRCC is actively working with other provinces and municipalities to identify new destinations that have the capacity to accommodate asylum seekers.”

But with long lines and waits for refugee status, Cornwall and other border cities will continue to face pressure like this, from people who feel like their only option is to walk into Canada.

Towndale and the IRCC confirmed they met on Feb. 17 to discuss the situation, with more communication needed.

“I think there was a bit of a misunderstanding what the actual needs were and what was actually happening here,” noted Towndale. “I’ve heard from numerous community organizations that were helping out, what the actual situation was on the ground, and it would seem that IRCC at the time was having difficulty understanding that in full.

“If we had a two way street for communication we can ensure that the right resources are in place, that everybody is getting the help they need,” he added. “At the end of the day if the resources aren’t there and we can’t help, it will be the asylum claimers that will be stuck in that whole limbo where they have nothing and they have nowhere to go.”

Towndale and Duncan also noted that some asylum claimants have found work in the area, once their paperwork was approved, helping to fill worker gaps in the region.

“We have available jobs in our community and some of these folks are arriving with qualification and skills that we need, not just us, but other places in Canada,” Towndale said. “If these individuals can join our workforce and contribute immediately to alleviate those stresses, that’s a benefit for everybody.”

“Cornwall has benefitted immensely from immigration, particularly in the past couple of years, the increasing diversity we have had and the new Canadians that are moving here is a wonderful thing,” added Duncan.

“I don’t think the frustration and what’s been happening with the IRCC processing centre, the lack, is any sort of deflection from Cornwall. The community has been welcoming and will continue to be welcoming in that way,” he said. 

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