Tempers flared at an emergency meeting of the House of Commons immigration committee on Tuesday, with witnesses and MPs clashing repeatedly over the course of a marathon six hours of testimony about the situation at the Canada-U.S. border.
The emergency sit-down, which committee members from all parties agreed was necessary earlier this month, included appearances by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, new Border Security Minister Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary Adam Vaughan, Ontario’s minister responsible for immigration Lisa MacLeod, the head of the union representing border guards, representatives of local support organizations and even refugee claimants themselves.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was scheduled to testify late Tuesday afternoon.
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At several points, the political witnesses were unable to finish their answers before being interrupted with a new line of questioning from committee members, forcing the chair to ask everyone to stop talking over one another.
There were heated exchanges over a number of issues, including the amount of funding being provided by Ottawa to assist the provinces where most of the crossings have occurred. A total of $50 million has been set aside across three provinces, with more promised in the coming months.
There were also arguments over the use of the word “illegal” to describe the 31,000 border crossers who have arrived since January 2017.
During his testimony, Vaughan — whose focus was on housing — testified that Canada is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis that dates back decades. That, he argued, is the root cause of why so many asylum seekers have ended up in shelters or university dormitories in major cities like Toronto.
At one stage, NDP MP Jenny Kwan asked Vaughan why he even bothered to show up if he couldn’t answer her questions about government funding and the most effective way to handle the housing issue.
Provincial minister MacLeod, meanwhile, told the committee that asylum seekers have taken advantage of Ontarians’ generosity, and that her government has “a $200-million price tag that I need you guys to pay for.”
Over the course of the morning and afternoon, the committee did manage to tease out several new pieces of information.
The 800 asylum seekers currently being housed in Toronto’s university dormitories, for example, will soon be moved to hotels as the schools get set to welcome students back in the fall. It remains unclear how many hotel rooms will be necessary, however, or for how long.
It’s also unclear how many of the asylum seekers who have crossed the border between legal checkpoints have found employment while waiting to have their refugee claims assessed.
While the federal government tracks the number of work permits it issues, officials said it does not have a way to track the number of people who have actually found jobs.
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According to the most recent numbers, the RCMP intercepted 1,263 people at the border in June, which is down from 1,869 in May and over 2,500 in April. While the numbers are dropping, they are not back down to the levels seen in early 2017.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel again pressed the government about extending the Safe Third Country agreement to the entire border.
The Liberal ministers reiterated that the government has reached out to the United States to inquire about launching discussions surrounding the agreement (which is at the heart of why so many people are crossing between legal checkpoints) but the Americans have not responded.
Blair also admitted on Tuesday that he has not even received his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Will minister Goodale be reporting to you?” Rempel asked Blair early in the day.
“No,” he answered.
“Will the (Canada Border Services Agency) be reporting to you?” Rempel asked.
“No. I have not received my mandate letters from the prime minister just yet so I cannot speculate on what my role will be,” Blair replied.
Rempel voiced skepticism about Blair’s cabinet appointment, questioning whether it was simply a public relations exercise that would create more bureaucracy.
-With files from the Canadian Press
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