August 11, 2019 11:33 am
Updated: August 11, 2019 11:34 am

The West Block – Episode 49, Season 8

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, August 11, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.



Episode 49, Season 8

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Jean-Pierre Fortin, Bill Frelik, Minister Todd Smith

Location: Ottawa


Story continues below

Mercedes Stephenson: On this Sunday, an increase in asylum seekers crossing into Canada by walking illegally across the border. We visit a popular port of entry for those heading north, to find out why the numbers are up.

Then, as President Trump tries to close the southern border and restrict asylum seekers to the U.S., is it time to get rid of the Safe Third Country Agreement between our two nations?

Plus, Quebec and Ontario are the most affected by asylum seekers. We’ll talk to Ontario’s minister responsible for this file about how the province is handling the pressure.

It is Sunday, August 11th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

It’s been two years since a new phenomenon started: asylum seekers illegally crossing into Canada from the United States. To deal with the influx, the government added more RCMP officers, set up a satellite police station at the most popular port of entry in Quebec, and moved more customs and border patrol agents to process the claims. Tens of thousands of people have entered Canada, and while things were slowing down, Global News has learned the numbers spiked again in June. So we travelled to the infamous Roxham Road crossing to meet with Jean-Pierre Fortin. He’s the president of the union that represents border agents on the front lines, to find out what’s going on.

Jean-Pierre, can you tell me a little bit about what’s been happening over the last month at this border crossing?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: So what’s happening here is, normally people will be crossing right on the other side of that car, which we call illegally. Most of the time, you will see a taxicab dropping people, or a little bit, that will be dropping individuals, which when they will be crossing here, they will claim the asylum seeker status. They will go in that building right behind me, which is the RCMP’s building. They will be making sure that the people are crossing safe, that they’re not wearing any weapons and everything is safe. Then after that, you will see a bus. They will be bussed down to the main office in Lacolle. Our officers, the people who I represent, will be taking charge of them. They will be opening the files. They will be taking their fingerprints. And the main thing, we need to identify them very clearly.

Mercedes Stephenson: Over the month of July, there was a significant increase here. What have you seen happening with the numbers in terms of the number of people coming across the border in the last month?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Well, especially in July, what we’ve seen. There have been around 100 people per day, per 24 hours, that were crossing here. So there was a spike significantly in July, but I would say the last week of July and the first week of August, the numbers have been stabilized around 50 to 60 per day. So that’s what’s going on now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Where are these people coming from?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Mainly from Guinea, from Congo, from different countries of Africa. They will be transiting by South America, different countries there, to end up in Mexico. And then from Mexico, they will be crossing into the United States.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have any sense of why these people are making such a long, and I’d imagine at times, very dangerous and difficult journey?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: I would say about 90 per cent of them will say that they don’t want to stay in the United States, because this is a question we’ve been asking them: why you don’t want to stay in the United States? Because they don’t like the policy of Mr. Trump.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Canadians tend to think of the U.S. border with Mexico as an American problem, but what’s happening there with migrants is now having a pretty direct effect in Canada.

Jean-Pierre Fortin: They are. This corridor is now famous—notorious I would say—worldwide like being the open door Canada to claim asylum seekers, the status. So obviously, once they’re claiming here, they know. You know, they’re telling the officers of the RCMP clearly they know it’s illegal.

Mercedes Stephenson: Have there been cases where you’ve been concerned or managed to identify somebody who is a criminal threat or potential national security threat?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Not that I was—you know, that it was brought up to my attention. Some do have criminal history, obviously. And then we document them and we make sure that they leave the country, promptly.

Mercedes Stephenson: What is the most common group you would see coming across? Families or single people, how would you characterize that?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Families, and large families. We’re talking about families with an average of six, seven kids in most of the cases. But the problem is there’s not an awful lot of surveillance in-between other ports, especially the more west or east you’re going, like the RCMP is mainly here in this area. But elsewhere, there’s hardly anyone.

Mercedes Stephenson: How big of a problem do you think that is?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: This is a major problem, especially the situation of asylum seekers or immigration. It’s not something that will disappear in the near future. I think Canada needs to make sure that the border is more secure and that we increase the security in-between ports of entry. I think that’s a major issue now.

Mercedes Stephenson: How big of a strain is this continuing situation putting on the front lines CBSA officers?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Well it does put a lot of strain there on our officers, obviously. And the people, as I mentioned, the cases are coming more and more complex for our officers.

Mercedes Stephenson: Where do these people go once their inside Canada?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: They will be bussed down [to] Montreal. In Montreal, they will be brought to the YMCA. But again, we’ve been told that right now the shelters in Montreal, the capacity is at their backs. The YMCA, even the detention centre in Laval is full now as we are speaking. So that is a problem, so I don’t know where these individuals are now going. Is it elsewhere in Ontario, or other provinces or other towns? But I know so far, the capacity of Montreal; it’s pretty much at the maximum

Mercedes Stephenson: And the federal government says they put a lot of money into border security, into the RCMP, into the CBSA. Has that made a difference and is it enough?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Well, we don’t see the amount of money so far. To be quite frank, we know there’s money. I don’t know if that money will be spent over the next few months, or year or so, if the government’s got a plan. But obviously, we haven’t seen an augmentation of officers right now. Like this summer, for example, in 2019, there’s lack of officers in every office in Canada. Seriously.

Mercedes Stephenson: So how much of a strain does it put on when you have a spike like what happened in July, then. Do you have to move resources to try to deal with that?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: I don’t know if the government thinks that it will fade away. But now, we’re getting into our third year with the situation we’re having in hand and I think there needs to be something more permanently. So, right now, the people that are dealing with asylum seekers are coming from across the country. So they’re not increasing the amount of resources.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to the CBSAs authority and ability to track people inside Canada, there’s tens of thousands of people who’ve come across this border. And the most recent numbers showed that less than 800 have actually been deported. Are your officers struggling to know where these people are and to be able to remove them if necessary?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Definitely. What we are seeing is probably the tip of the iceberg here. And here’s with the situation. With the amount of asylum seekers that are in the country now. They’re entitled to appeal the decision, number one. And once they are appealing that decision, it will take up to two years to evaluate that. And for those asylum seekers that know that they’re not going to be able to reach the stage that their claim will be granted in Canada, or they know what they have a criminal history. The concern is they may disappear and that will be very hard to get because the people who do check them within CBSA, it’s a very small group, which are called inland enforcement officers. Obviously, this group of people needs to probably double up, at the very least right now, to face the situation that may occur in 2020 or 2021 or 2022, because these people are in Canada. Either when it has been granted, the status to actually their demand has granted, but it’s the other people that we should be worrying [about]. And that’s why we certainly don’t have the resources to track them down and to deport them.

Mercedes Stephenson: So there’s a shortage of the number of people who track where people are once they’re in Canada, if they’re a risk, and fine them and deport them if they fail?

Jean-Pierre Fortin: Absolutely.

Mercedes Stephenson: Jean-Pierre, thank you very much for coming all the way down here today and joining us to talk about this issue.

Jean-Pierre Fortin: It was a pleasure to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, given President Trump’s push to change the rules and toughen up border restrictions with Mexico is it time to rethink the Canada-U.S. Asylum Agreement?


President Donald Trump: “I want people to know that if they come into the United States illegally, they’re getting out. They’re going to be brought out, and this serves as a very good deterrent. If people come into our country illegally, they’re going out.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was President Trump late last week. Last month, the president announced the Safe Third Country Agreement with Guatemala and he’s been pushing Mexico to do the same.

In the courts, the Trump administration has been fighting to increase restrictions on those seeking asylum in the U.S. What does it mean for Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States? Here is Bill Frelik from Human Rights Watch.

Bill Frelik: “Growing out, claims that are based on private actors like gangs and domestic abusers whose governments are unable or unwilling to control them. This would be a grounds that would be recognized in Canada and yet if the United States is not recognizing people fleeing for this very serious reason, then it does open the question whether Canada and the United States do in fact, have comparable systems.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now from Saskatoon is the minister responsible for Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair. Welcome to the show, minister.

Minister Bill Blair: Thank you, Mercedes. Good morning.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know the Safe Third Country Agreement is something you’ve talked about potentially renegotiating. There’s all of this chaos now around the Trump administration trying to renegotiate it with other countries that’s been what allows people to cross into Canada and some Canadians want it renegotiated. Can you update us on the status of where you’re at in terms of reconsidering that agreement?

Minister Bill Blair: Yeah, just so your listeners will understand. Since 2002, we’ve had a treaty agreement with the United States. It’s called the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows people to cross in from either direction in the border. If they’re claiming asylum, but they’re coming from either Canada or the United States, on the principal of asylum primacy, they are to stay in the country of the first safe place in which they have arrived. And Canada, since 2002, has recognized by that treat, the United States as a safe third country, as we are to them. And actually, the agreement that has existed between us has allowed us to very effectively manage our border and the management of migrants crossing at our border points at point of entry. But what we have found in the last few years, since the beginning of 2017, there have been people crossing at irregular point of entry. They’re still entitled to claim asylum in our country, but the provisions of the Safe Third Country did not apply to them. And as a consequence, we’ve entered into discussions and very extensive discussions with the U.S. authorities on how we might modernize that agreement, to maintain its effectiveness in maintaining the integrity of our borders and managing people coming from both the United States and Canada into our respective countries.

Mercedes Stephenson: Speaking of those numbers, we had a look at some of the most recent ones. There was a pretty significant spike in June. If you look, there were 1,567 people who crossed the border irregularly in June. Those numbers haven’t been that high since September of 2018. Does it concern you that the trend seems to be that the uptick is happening again?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, you know, we’ve actually achieved a great level of success and between 30 and 40 per cent fewer people have come from the United States into Canada in 2019, compared to last year. And we also avoided the very significant increase and surge that took place in the summer of 2017. That’s a direct result of a lot of excellent work that’s been done by our officials on both sides of the border to manage and regulate the number of people that are coming and seeking asylum. But, I think in response to some of the enforcement actions that were announced and very publicly undertaken in the United States, we did see a small increase in the number of people coming, but it pales in comparison to the surge that we experienced in 2017. And since that time, you know, we’ve worked on both sides of the border. We’ve gone to those communities, we’ve explained our laws. We’ve made some regulatory changes in the budget implementation act of 2019 and that have, I think, taken away a lot of the incentives of individuals who would cross from the United States into Canada to seek asylum. And it more regularizes that system, so the rules apply and Canadians have an expectation that the system will be fair. We’ve been working hard to make sure that it is fair and that it upholds all of our laws and all of our rules, but it also has to be efficient. And so we’ve made significant new investments in speeding up the process of refugee determination. And for those who need our protection, they’re going to get it. And for those who are not eligible for protection, they’re going to be removed.

Mercedes Stephenson: On that topic of putting resources in, we met with the head of the union that represents border officers and he said they haven’t seen that money flowing, that there’s not enough people who are able to keep track of people once they’re inside Canada and determine if they need to be deported, that the size of that sell of keeping track of people once they’re in Canada, would need to double. Why is it if there’s money flowing that we haven’t seen something as important as determining where people are and locating them for removal, grow to meet that demand?

Minister Bill Blair: You know I actually work very closely with CBSA. We have brought significant new resources. You know, about seven or eight years ago, they saw very significant reductions in their staffing and in their funding and we’ve been working hard to rebuild that capacity. You know, they’re training new officers at Rigaud. I’ve been to their graduations. They’ve got new facilities that we’re opening up across the country. And the capacity of the CBSA to do the important work that we ask of them, you know, we wanted them to affect approximately 10,000 removals each year. And they told us the resources they need and we made those resources available to them. Now CBSA, I think, is doing an excellent job. We also have made significant investments in IRB, which is the independent agency responsible for refugee determination. Their ability to do those hearings was limited to about 26,000 a year and we needed to increase their capacity. So we’ve nearly doubled it. And by the end of this year, they’ll be able to do 50,000 a year. But we’ve also worked hard to reduce the number of people that have been crossing irregularly. And we’ve achieved real success. As I’ve said, we’ve seen—

Mercedes Stephenson: But Minister, in terms of deporting people and not just those who are entering, can you give us an update on the number of people who have actually been deported from Canada who cross irregularly to begin with? Because we know there’s tens of thousands who have come in. How many have been removed?

Minister Bill Blair: Yeah, and let’s be really clear, Mercedes. The processes are legal processes. The due process is that every applicant is entitled to. It takes about two and a half years, and so with the surge of people that we saw coming irregularly in 2017, are only now completing those determination processes. And for those who are subject to removal, CBSA is working hard, to make sure that those removals are affected in a compassionate but speedy and efficient way. And so those removals are now taking place. CBSA also puts particular emphasis on those who are subject to removal as a result of criminality or any risk to Canadian society and I think that’s an appropriate use of their resources and their authority as well. But the people that began coming in the summer of 2017, that huge surge that Canada experienced, those people are now going through the process and completing the determination. For those who are eligible for our protection, they’re receiving it. And for those who are subject to removal, they’re leaving.

Mercedes Stephenson: So how many of those people would have been deported then?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, those processes have now begun. I understand there are about 600 people who have crossed irregularly who are now entering the process of removal. But that number is going to increase because we did see—prior to 2017, you know, there were very few irregular migrants and so those numbers of people are completing those processes and moving their way through that. They’re coming to the conclusion of all of our legal processes and appeals. And for those who are subject to removal, those removals will now take place. People had said, you know, why weren’t they removed earlier? And it was simply because they were entitled under our law and under our processes to due process. And that due process has now been completed, and for those who are not eligible to remain, then they are subject to removal and CBSA will do that work for us.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, that’s all the time we have for today, but we appreciate you joining us.

Minister Bill Blair: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, Quebec and Ontario have absorbed most of the asylum seekers. We’ll get an update on how Ontario is coping from the minister.


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Earlier this year, Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s former Minister of Children, Communities and Social Services, criticized the federal government for not providing enough resources to help the province deal with the impact of asylum seekers entering Ontario. Has the situation improved?

Joining me now from Queens Park is the new minister for that file, Todd Smith. Welcome to the show, Minister Smith.

Minister Todd Smith: Hi Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you give us a little bit of an update on what the situation is right now in terms of accommodating asylum seekers in Ontario?

Minister Todd Smith: Well, the costs are piling up. There’s been a lack of action from the federal government on this file. We know it’s costing because the delay in getting refugee claimants through the process is taking up to two years. And when it’s taking up to two years to get through the court process, it’s the provinces that are bearing most of the costs. When it comes to social services, education, also legal aid, these are all costs that are adding up for the province of Ontario. And the federal government has said in the past that they would carry those costs. They were responsible for those irregular immigration processes taking place and that they would pick up those costs, but we haven’t seen much action from Justin Trudeau and the federal government on that file.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know we’d heard previously how much money the Ontario government wanted. Obviously, a few months have gone by since we talked about this. What’s the current number that you estimate this will cost the Ontario government that you would like to see the federal government step up and foot the bill for?

Minister Todd Smith: Well that’s the thing. We don’t know exactly what this is costing. It is in the neighbourhood of hundreds of millions of dollars, we can say that. The public accounts committee here at Queens Park has asked the Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk and her office, to look into the costs associated with these irregular crossing and what the toll will be for our province here in Ontario. So they’re looking at all of those costs. It’s the province that bears the cost of education. And we do know that the number of students in our public education system has increased to about over 5,000. That’s more than doubled, so the costs for education alone is up in the neighbourhood of about $64 million, twice what it was two years ago. We can say the same thing for legal aid. We know that the federal government has only footed the bill for between 30 and 40 per cent of the costs of legal aid for immigration here in Ontario. That varies from province to province. We know in Manitoba, for instance, that the feds have paid up 90 per cent of those costs. In B.C., 72 per cent, so whatever reason, Ontario hasn’t been made whole on those costs like other provinces have or nearly have. And then of course, the cost on social services is significant as well, about 25 per cent of these irregular border crossers, those seeking asylum in Ontario are on social assistance, so those costs are severe as well. We’re doing everything we can on Ontario to try and accommodate these folks, but the federal government is just dragging out the process to get these folks into their hearings, to anywhere between 20 and 24 months.

Mercedes Stephenson: Have you spoken to your federal counterpart? Have you spoken to Bill Blair about this and asked him where the money is or when it might start flowing?

Minister Todd Smith: I’ve been in this file for about five weeks now at Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. One of the first calls that I did make was to Minister Bill Blair, to speak with him. I know that we’ve heard that we all, I believe, are on the same track here in wanting to do more for these folks, but the border is federal responsibility, and there needs to be more order at the border and it really is lacking right now. I know that Minister Duclos whose also responsible for this file, we’ve reached out to him, to make sure that he’s aware of the situation in Ontario as well so that the federal government will live up to promises that they’ve made. They’ve said numerous times in the past, both Minister Duclos and Minister Hussen, who was on this file previously, have said that these are—these folks—these people that are crossing the border, mostly in Ontario and Quebec, are federal responsibility, but they haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, how is the provinces capacity to accommodate people in terms of physical shelter? Because there had been concern about shelters and hotels that were overflowing.

Minister Todd Smith: Yeah, and its municipalities that are impacted as well. So while the provinces are carrying a lot of this load, individual municipalities are seeing strain on their housing situation. And, you know, we believe that the federal government should be paying for those costs as well during that 24-month period or however long it’s taking. You know, these folks that are fleeing dangerous situations in many cases, you know, they need services from the municipalities. They need services from the provincial government. And the federal government is responsible for these folks and should be paying the bills.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Smith, thank you for your time, today.

Minister Todd Smith: Thank you, Mercedes, anytime.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Please be sure to follow us on Titter, Facebook and Instagram. And of course, you can go to our website: for more.

Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, for The West Block. Have a great week.

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