'It got pretty hostile': Manitoba Housing tells Gretna it will host reception centre for asylum seekers

Residents in the small border community of Gretna, Man. say they were taken by surprise when Manitoba Housing announced it was setting up a reception centre for asylum seekers in their backyard.

About 80 people turned out for an April 26 meeting, hastily called by Manitoba Housing, in Gretna, a community of 550 on the U.S. border, about 120 kilometres south of Winnipeg. 

"We are in the dark, we have no idea. We've just been told that this is happening and that's it," said Rehannon Tkachuk, a Gretna resident who was at the meeting. "It was made very clear to us that they were here to tell us about what's going on, and not to ask for our permission."

Rhineland Reeve Don Wiebe says he got notice of the meeting less than two days before it happened.

"They told us [they] were running out of emergency housing space in Winnipeg and it was critical. And they wanted to use this former seniors' facility as temporary placement for asylum seekers waiting to be panelled as refugees," said Wiebe. "This is a big step for us and we had no time to process it."

An official with Manitoba Housing says more than 400 asylum seekers have crossed the border into Manitoba in recent months. Carolyn Ryan says the province had no choice but to look for temporary housing outside of Winnipeg. 

"There are two pieces to the equation: capacity and flow. And right now there is flow coming, the number of people coming in, is happening at a faster rate than people being housed permanently. So our temporary housing in Winnipeg is being backed up. The reception centre in Gretna is hoped to add capacity and help us improve flow," said Ryan.

'How do we explain this to our children?'

The vacant seniors' home on Berlin Street is owned by the province. The fact it is near an elementary school has parents such as Tkachuk worried.

"I don't know about the stranger aspect. We have an extremely small community and see strangers from time to time because we live on the border. But not often. How do we explain this to our children, that we will have strangers coming in and out all the time? We aren't from the city and we are not used to this," said Tkachuk.

Ryan with Manitoba Housing said residents at the meeting were very vocal.

"It got pretty hostile. But it wasn't related to Gretna. It was anger in general over why people are being allowed to cross at all. Why is it happening?" said Ryan.

Others called for increased policing. Gretna has no local police force; RCMP respond from Carman or Morden.  

"There is a fair bit of anxiety," Wiebe conceded. "We are under the RCMP and their call-out time can be a while, depending if they are coming from Carman or Morden. We are talking to RCMP to see what can be done to step up response time."

Ryan said the province has heard residents' concerns — even though the RCMP is a federal responsibility — and is making changes.

"We heard what they had to say about security and safety. So our original plan was on-site staff during the day and overnight security. We are going to adjust that now for 24-hour on-site security," said Ryan.

A right to get some 'fresh air and just breathe'

Those in support of the centre say while they understand the concerns, they question who is raising them. Robin Neustaeter grew up in Gretna and lives there now. She was at the April 26 meeting and says many of those who are opposed don't live in Gretna.

"These people are making assumptions police will be needed. These asylum seekers have gone through an incredible journey and have a lot to process in their minds and hearts. I am sure they will be resting and sleeping, and they will also have a lot of paperwork to do," said Neustaeter.

"If they need an opportunity to step outside and get some fresh air and just breathe, it's a right we all have. And they have the right do do that. I don't see them as a threat to the security of the community at all."

Ryan said the centre will house single people and families coming from Emerson who will stay in Gretna for two or three days.

"We will do their paperwork in Gretna before being transferred to Winnipeg. Their stay will be much shorter and they will be transitioned into permanent housing much more quickly," she said.

Neustaeter said people in Gretna are showing up at the centre volunteering to help with set up or to drop off toys and hygiene items. The facility, which can house up to 60 people, is to open this week. 

"They are only here for a few days. And if we can make them feel they are in a safe place, that they get a smile when they come to the centre, they feel cared for, and they feel some compassion before they move on to Winnipeg, that would be wonderful," said Neustaeter.

Wiebe says the Mennonite community has always been a welcoming one. 

"While some were upset initially, I am hoping the community will rally behind this and the outcome is positive," said Wiebe.

No one from CBSA was at the April 26 meeting. A provincial spokesperson says the agency was invited, but no one showed up.