Cornwall, Ont., needs resources to support influx of asylum seekers, mayor says

Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale said he's been told nearly 800 asylum seekers are in his city, some at the DEV Hotel and Conference Centre, seen here in 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale said he's been told nearly 800 asylum seekers are in his city, some at the DEV Hotel and Conference Centre, seen here in 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Cornwall is unable to meet the needs of its growing population of asylum seekers, local officials say, and the eastern Ontario city is looking to recoup costs it believes the federal government has downloaded onto the municipality.

That city and the surrounding United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry are currently covering half the administrative costs for all provincial support programs for asylum seekers in the city, according to Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale.

"We're doing what we can — and we will continue to do what we can to help these people — but at some point, we're going to have to tap out," Towndale said. "We're going to hit our limit."

On Wednesday, he was told by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that 779 asylum seekers were in Cornwall, with roughly 3,300 in Ontario, Towndale said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Thursday.

About 325 asylum seekers are at the city's sprawling DEV Hotel and Conference Centre, formerly the Nav Centre, he said Thursday. It has 443 rooms available and has been used to help shelter people before.

Another 150 or so rooms are available for the same purpose in the city's Ramada Inn, and more than 100 claimants are using them.

Beyond administrative costs, Towndale said he's concerned by the reduced amount of hotel space in the city.

Supplied by Justin Towndale
Supplied by Justin Towndale

Quebec has long expressed concern about the number of asylum seekers entering the province through its infamous Roxham Road border crossing.

One factor is Republican states sending people to the northeast after they arrive from Mexico. New York City and organizations there have been paying for their bus tickets to Plattsburgh, N.Y., near the Canadian border, saying it helps people who want to move elsewhere.

Quebec's immigration minister said Tuesday that an increasing number of seekers are being sent elsewhere in the country.

A spokesperson for IRCC said in an email to CBC that it is "committed to working collaboratively with its municipal and provincial partners to help alleviate the pressures they are facing."

The IRCC said hotel arrangements in Cornwall and other locations were set up "in direct consultation" with those municipalities, but Towndale disagrees. He only heard about the Ramada lease agreement through "unofficial channels," he said.

'Zero notice, consultation or resources,' MP says

The Conservative MP for the region raised similar concerns in the House of Commons last week.

"Months ago the Liberals signed contracts with local hotels for a major Roxham Road processing centre, but local partners on the ground received zero notice, consultation or resources," Eric Duncan said during question period.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser defended the government's record while acknowledging the "disproportionate pressures" of resettling asylum seekers in border communities.

"We will continue to support communities that are trying to do their best to deal with an influx of people who are seeking a safe haven in this country," Fraser said.

Senator Bernadette Clement, who served as Cornwall mayor from 2018 to 2021, also raised the issue in the Senate's standing committee on official languages last Monday.

Clement said "recruitment, attraction, retention" of migrants all happens at the municipal level, yet municipalities often feel as though they are left out of the process.

Matthew Kupfer/CBC
Matthew Kupfer/CBC

Others are concerned about the distribution of asylum seekers within cities. Ottawa city councillor Stéphanie Plante estimates Ottawa has received roughly 300 Quebec asylum seekers in the past six months.

"That number exceeds what our support centres in downtown can handle, so we're hoping to spread the burden to other parts of the city," she told Radio-Canada in French on Wednesday.

The capital declared a housing emergency more than three years ago. An average of nearly 2,200 people sought temporary emergency shelter any given night in December 2022, according to city data.

Plante believes her ward, Rideau-Vanier, is disproportionately affected.

"We need help from the federal government to share the load, including financial assistance," she said.

Part of 'normal burden-sharing,' prof says

Mireille Paquet, a political science professor at Concordia University, said the situation should be understood as part of a global displacement crisis with a record number of people in need of protection.

"The reality is that people end up in Canada, in large part, because there is no other place in which they can claim asylum," Paquet said.

"We really need to accept that dealing with these arrivals is also just doing normal burden-sharing in relation to the number of people globally displaced."

Cornwall city council passed a motion this week calling for a meeting with the IRCC. After mounting pressure, the IRCC agreed to send a department representative to Cornwall this Friday.

"At the end, it's the asylum claimants that will suffer," he said "They'll be left in limbo. They won't have any support, at all."