Cornwall, Ont. officials seek guidance on Haitian asylum seekers

Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced last week that a temporary shelter would be set up in Cornwall

CORNWALL, Ont. – The city council in this eastern Ontario community wants the federal government to explain how it is supposed to deal with an influx of Haitian asylum seekers crossing to Canada from the United States.

A special meeting is scheduled for today at Cornwall city hall to give municipal leaders an update on the situation.

Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, says officials from the Immigration Department and the Canada Border Services Agency are expected to attend the meeting, which is open to the public.

“The more information people have the more comfortable they’re going to feel about this process,” Coun. Bernadette Clement said in an interview.

Const. Daniel Cloutier, a Cornwall police spokesman, says almost 300 Haitians have arrived recently and, so far, there have been no problems and none are anticipated.

MORE: MP going to Miami to address misinformation among asylum seekers

About 3,800 people crossed into Quebec in the first two weeks of August following the 2,996 who crossed in July after the Trump administration said it was considering ending “temporary protected status” for Haitians in the U.S. following their country’s massive 2010 earthquake.

Last week, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced a temporary shelter would be set up in Cornwall.

The newcomers are being housed at the Nav Centre, which is run by Nav Canada, the private non-profit corporation that owns and operates the country’s civil air navigation service. The military is erecting tents on its grounds.

The centre sits on more than 28 hectares of parkland abutting the St. Lawrence Seaway and is billed as a government conference centre with all the amenities of a luxury resort. Its website boasts 560 “comfortable” rooms, as well as a swimming pool, sauna, fitness centre and outdoors sports fields.

On a sweltering Monday afternoon, a handful of new arrivals lingered on the manicured lawns of the centre’s entrance.

Mary Jean, 34, said she arrived three days ago, alone with her four-year-old daughter, after living five years in New York City.

“The government tried to hurt people so that’s why I came here. I’m young, I want to study, and then work,” said Jean. “Maybe I’ll get a better life.”

Bardsley said the Canada Border Services Agency conducted security screening on the new arrivals and “they are admissible to Canada, they are not being detained.”

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The Nav Canada site is considered temporary housing while asylum seekers wait for interviews with immigration officials to determine their eligibility for a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board, he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday none of those who have walked across the United States border would receive any special advantages in their quest to come to Canada, stressing to Canadians and would-be refugees alike that border hoppers must go through the usual security checks and immigration evaluations.

Cornwall has dealt with emergency housing issues in the past.

The Nav Centre has housed First Nations from northern Ontario and accommodated others affected by recent flooding, said Clement.

“The main criticism right now — and I this understand completely — is the lack of information. This was a very sudden situation … all of a sudden people saw tents being put up at the Nav Centre, and so people have questions and rightly so.”

She said the community is “fairly receptive” to the new arrivals, who are not being detained and can circulate freely in the community. Typical questions are: How many are there? How long will they be staying at the Nav Centre? What is cost to the city?

“The next most popular question is: What can we do? What do they need?”

That’s because children account for one in five of the new arrivals, she said.

“The folks are not detained. They’re in the community, they’re walking about, it’s nice weather and there are children, so people are saying what do the kids need, and how can we help?”

Marie Rode Duran, a Toronto French immersion teacher originally from Haiti, was waiting Monday afternoon at the Nav Centre’s entrance, trying to reconnect with a young mother and her three-year-old daughter who recently made the trek from the U.S.

“We’re from Haiti too, so we feel we need to help them,” she explained. “They need information — where to go, what to do, explain (to) them how Canada works.”

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