Free transit should be offered to displaced people from all countries, aid groups say

·4 min read
Ottawa city councillors will discuss next week whether to offer free transit services to people fleeing the war in Ukraine and other displaced populations.  (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa city councillors will discuss next week whether to offer free transit services to people fleeing the war in Ukraine and other displaced populations. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

UPDATE | On April 27, council approved McKenney's amended motion to extend free transit to all refugees, regardless of where they come from.

Ottawa's transit commission has signaled a desire to offer free OC Transpo service to newly-arrived Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, but some aid groups say the city should extend that kind of support to all displaced people regardless of their country of origin.

"If you give it to one group and you don't give it to the other, to me it doesn't make sense," said Doreen Katto, a program co-ordinator for Matthew House Ottawa, which provides shelter and other supports to refugees and people transitioning to permanent housing.

"I love the goodwill. I'm not so sure about the execution," echoed Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613.

On Wednesday, commission chair and Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley fronted a motion calling on city council to approve a move to offer six-month transit passes to people who have come to Ottawa fleeing the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis.

"I certainly pray that my children and grandchildren will never experience that kind of horrific evil in Canada," Hubley said of the invasion.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

According to the motion, the passes are intended for people not receiving transportation funding from other levels of government.

Hubley's motion also called on the new slate of city councillors who will be elected later this year to consider a future policy of providing free transit service to "all refugees."

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who also sits on the commission, said they were uncomfortable supporting a policy for immediate free transit "that separates out refugees based on their country of origin."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

McKenney said that when the matter comes to city council next Wednesday, they will suggest an amendment calling for the city to immediately offer six months of free transit to all refugee groups.

Another commission member, River ward Coun. Riley Brockington, said his ward has taken in refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in recent years.

"They are as deserving as is any other refugee," he said.

Hubley said that "if we can do it," the service should be extended to all refugees as soon as possible, but that he'd like some feedback on potential costs from city staff.

'We're trying to do something good,' councillor says

The councillor told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Thursday that a Ukrainian association wrote a letter asking for such a measure, which prompted him to put the motion forward.

"If this is going to be a problem, then I guess what's going to happen is we won't be able to do it, and we'll wait and make the decision based on everybody as soon as that information becomes available," he said.

"I find it a little difficult ... in that we're trying to do something good for somebody here and we're being criticized.... It's a challenge to deal with that but we're going to try to do it."

Taylor of Refugee 613 — which helps new Canadians get settled — said Ottawa should make the offer to all displaced people.

Up to 400 being hosted in Ottawa: estimate

"I'd be the first to promote it and to urge people to sign up. Why wait until the next term of council to do something substantive?" Taylor said.

Katto of Matthew House Ottawa said free transit would be an "extremely important" service for clients who need a ride to see a lawyer, for example.

"Guess who [currently] foots that bill? That would be us, a small non-profit," she said. "So it would really be very helpful if the same kind of support can be extended to all newly arrived refugees or displaced persons."


Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, a co-ordinator with the Ottawa chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said she too welcomed the aid at the heart of Hubley's motion.

She said her organization's rough estimate is that Ottawans are currently hosting between 300 and 400 people who have fled Ukraine, according to committee members tracking online conversations matching Ukrainians to hosts.

"One of our colleagues on the team knows of a woman who just recently came here and she has no way of getting to her job except for by public transit," she said.

Transit passes lasting as long as a year would help those having difficulty adjusting to their new lives, she added.

"Six months can be great. However, these people are also potentially coming with some PTSD, some trauma, some struggles, and as much as they might want to throw themselves into work, maybe some won't."

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