CORNWALL, Ont. – After almost four minutes, Cornwall Coun. Bernadette Clement was done asking what she said must have been 20 questions. “Let’s see what you got,” she said, drawing a chuckle from the small but packed public gallery of her eastern Ontario city’s council chamber.
Louis Dumas, a director general in the Immigration Department, had the floor. But as was laid bare at this week’s public meeting, there were no easy answers to the challenges posed by the federal government’s decision to move hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers to Cornwall. A military-built tent city is being erected on the grounds of a conference centre to house them while their claims are being processed.
Clement and her fellow city councillors peppered Dumas and, to a lesser extent, a senior official from the Canada Border Services Agency with questions.
The exchanges depicted the uphill battle Ottawa faces in responding to the flood of almost 7,000 Haitian asylum seekers crossing from the United States into Quebec in the last six weeks. The new arrivals fear the Trump administration will revoke the “temporary protected status” they were granted following the devastating 2010 earthquake in their country.
Here’s an analysis of some of those questions — and the attempts to answer them:
1. What’s the plan for housing them in Cornwall?
The tent city for 500 people being built by the military on the grounds of the posh 28-hectare Nav Centre is only an “interim solution,” its director, Kim Coe-Turner, repeatedly said. “The interim lodging solution is not a permanent thing. It’s really something to allow us to get through the month of September into October, until the bad weather comes.” The tent city is needed because the centre’s 540 rooms may now be free but the centre is fully booked for the fall months. As for what comes after October, there is no plan yet.
2. How long will they be at the Nav Centre?
Dumas said the vast majority want to get to Montreal where there is a large Haitian diaspora so the department is sending 24 officers to start the initial paperwork on their asylum applications. “We hope that we will be able to complete their paper process here in Cornwall within hopefully a week. And then hopefully, we’ll be able to send them onwards to Montreal.” Within a week, the government hopes to move 50 people at a time — that equals one busload — to Montreal where they can live and wait to have their claims heard. That would then allow Quebec to rotate in another 50 claimants to the Nav Centre to be processed, part of a rolling bureaucratic procession through Cornwall.
3. How long will it take for the Immigration and Refugee Board to give them a hearing?
Clement pressed Dumas for answers repeatedly. He said his department wants to “proceed quickly in front of the (Immigration and Refugee Board). However, because the IRB is an independent tribunal we have to respect the independence of that tribunal.” There was no mention of the internal IRB memo obtained in June by The Canadian Press showing asylum claims were expected to reach 36,000 this year — 12,000 more than 2016. The memo predicted that by the end of 2021 the number of backlogged claims could equal an 11-year wait for a hearing. The IRB may be independent, but as chair Mario Dion said in a March interview, “there is a limit to what you can do” under such a mushrooming work load.
4. Can they work here and receive medical care? Can their kids go to school?
Dumas said when the claimants are approved for an IRB hearing then they qualify for health and social benefits. They can also get a work permit so they can earn money while waiting for their hearing. Once that initial paperwork is done, many are expected to move to Montreal where the federal government is working with local and provincial authorities on schooling.
5. And which federal department or agency is actually in charge of all this?
“There’s no lead agency,” said Coun. Andre Rivette. “It flip flops every 10 minutes and that’s a concern.” Added Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy: “If the public needs information where do they go? This is important because we don’t have a lead agency to direct them to?” Dumas said he understood Cornwall’s “thirst for information” and the need for its citizens to have Ottawa appoint one point person. He said he’d take this concern back to Ottawa. For now, he said, CBSA, the Defence Department and the RCMP were all playing a role. But he said they were under the “umbrella of Public Safety,” the federal department that oversees the Mounties and the border service.
— with files from Stephanie Levitz