By Sarah DelVillano and Deborah Mebude
This past July, the Government of Ontario announced it would no longer cover the costs of refugee claimants who’ve arrived from the United States. Premier Doug Ford’s office said the federal government was “100 per cent” to blame for a housing crisis that had put undue strain on resources within the province. Just days later, the Ontario and Saskatchewan governments stood together in asking that the Government of Canada fully fund supports for refugee claimants.
What followed soon after was a full day of meetings of the federal Citizenship and Immigration Committee, in which public servants from provincial and federal governments assessed the impact of irregular border crossings on Canada’s existing infrastructure. Amid much politicizing, many drew attention to a lack of available shelter spaces. In major cities like Toronto and Montreal in particular, housing refugee claimants has proven to be an ongoing challenge.
An influx of refugee claimants from the U.S. has been making headlines for over a year now. Since the beginning of 2018, the RCMP has intercepted 12,378 irregular border crossers, most of whom have arrived in the province of Quebec. These numbers, however, are actually down compared to the same period last year and are much lower than initial projections. So why have politicians drawn a connection between refugees and a housing crisis?
It’s well documented that the lack of affordable housing is a widespread problem in Canada. About 3.3 million households spend 30 per cent or more of their total income on shelter. Housing is an issue that hits close to home for people across this country. Perhaps this is why the notion that refugees have created a housing crisis has concerned so many.
But the history of precarious housing in Canada is a long one, spanning at least two decades. In 1996, then Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin announced plans to transfer federal social housing programs to provincial and territorial jurisdiction. This transfer deal locked in an annual cut to housing spending – effectively abandoning the federal government’s role in social housing.
That’s why the January 2018 release of a National Housing Strategy (NHS) was a welcomed step in the right direction. In Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ own words, the NHS signalled a “meaningful re-engagement by the federal government in housing,” the likes of which hadn’t been seen in over 20 years. Yet even with this strategy in place, many of the plans to meet housing needs still fall flat.
On August 14, advocates from across Canada, including CPJ, released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging his government to legislate the right to housing as part of its National Housing Strategy. More than 170 organizations and prominent Canadians signed on to this letter, recognizing that access to adequate housing is among the most fundamental of human rights.
But sadly, it’s a right that Canada has not provided to many in this country for decades. Refugee claimants aren’t so much the cause of deficiencies in housing as they are the victims of an already broken system, alongside many other vulnerable groups in Canada. Canadians should not be frightened into thinking that refugees are the source of this housing crisis.
Language matters. Referring to refugee claimants as “illegals” is not only incorrect in the context of international refugee law, but it also serves to scapegoat a virtually powerless population in this country. It’s bigger than semantics; it’s important to reject incriminating and unfounded language when speaking about refugees because they are prime targets for those who seek to demonize them.
So, does Canada have a crisis?
You could say so, but it’s overwhelmingly related to housing, not to the arrival of everyday people in search of a safe country to call home.
This issue requires swift action. At the federal level, Canada needs a more ambitious National Housing Strategy. It’s not enough to cut homelessness by 50 per cent over a 10-year period, nor is it enough to remove just 530,000 families from housing need. Ultimately, solving these problems will require federal and provincial leaders to prioritize housing needs across this country.
Refugee claimants will continue to come to Canada, as they always have. When they do, Canada has obligations to ensure they can be adequately housed.
The Ontario and Saskatchewan governments were right in expecting the federal government to address the shortage of affordable housing and to cover the costs of newly arrived refugee claimants in need of support. But clearly, they were wrong to defer their own responsibilities. Provincial and territorial governments must also do their parts.