Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to a one-time legal aid top-up of nearly $26 million for refugee and immigration cases to compensate for cuts delivered by Ontario Premier Doug Ford in this year's budget.
Trudeau made the announcement Monday at the Parkdale Intercultural Association in Toronto, ratcheting up the rhetoric in a bitter dispute over the policies and costs around asylum seekers by saying the funding was necessary because the Ford government decided to "step away" from the province's long tradition of sharing responsibility for legal supports for newcomers.
"There's conservative politicians [who] keep trying to move us back and make the most vulnerable hurt for the decisions that they make. Conservative politicians like to say they're for the people but they end up cutting services for the most vulnerable. It's what they do," he said.
With a federal election just 10 weeks away, Trudeau has been working to tie his primary opponent, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, with Ford, who is unpopular in the polls over various policies and budget cuts.
The move comes after Ford faced criticism for slashing funding for legal aid by 30 per cent. His spring budget cut Legal Aid Ontario funding by $133 million, and said the organization could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.
Ontario has argued the refugee system is the federal government's responsibility, so should shoulder the associated legal costs. The federal government maintained legal aid is a provincial duty.
The bulk of today's announced funding will go to Ontario ($25.7 million), with additional funds for British Columbia ($1.16 million) and Manitoba ($20,000). It comes on top of $49.6 million over three years for immigration and refugee legal aid announced in this year's federal budget.
Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey tweeted that it was good the federal government had "partially" answered his call to fund immigration and refugee legal aid.
"Funding in non-election years is also needed," he said.
Downey had written a letter to Trudeau last month asking the prime minister to instruct his ministers to reply to Ontario's requests for more funding, filling what he said was a gap of $25 million.
Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, said he was "appalled" by Ford's cuts to legal aid.
"I found them to be indefensible — indefensible from an economic perspective, indefensible from an evidence-based perspective, indefensible from an ethical perspective," he said at the Toronto event.
CBA welcomes news
The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) welcomed today's announcement.
"This money, along with funding earmarked in the federal budget for legal aid for immigrants and refugees, is a necessary commitment if Canada is to continue calling itself a humanitarian country, founded on the rule of law," said CBA president Ray Adlington in a statement.
In July, the Immigration and Refugee Board, the tribunal that adjudicates asylum claims in Canada, warned the Legal Aid Ontario cuts would lead to longer hearings, more delays and adjournments, and more missed deadlines due to applicants who don't have a lawyer.
The Canadian Refugee Lawyers Association had urged the Liberal government to step in and fill the gap created by the Ontario legal aid cuts.