On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced one-time legal aid funding of $26.8 million for refugee and immigration cases.
“The federal government is choosing to step up,” he said.
“We will be investing $26.8 million this year to ensure that legal aid services for immigrants and refugees continue in the province of Ontario.”
Trudeau made the comments during a tour of the Parkdale Intercultural Association in Toronto.
According to a press release, the funding will be split. Ontario will receive $25.7 million, British Columbia will get $1.16 million and Manitoba will see $0.02 million.
The funding announcement comes after cuts to the service were delivered in Ontario Premier Doug Ford‘s annual budget.
Ford’s spring budget slashed Legal Aid Ontario’s budget by 30 per cent, including eliminating funding for refugee and immigration law services — a move that refugee lawyers and advocates have said will hurt vulnerable migrants and that the Immigration and Refugee Board has said will slow down its cases.
During the announcement on Monday, Trudeau slammed the cuts.
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“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.”
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Ontario’s Attorney General Doug Downey had argued that immigration is a federal responsibility, so Ottawa should shoulder the costs.
He said Ontario had not been receiving the same level of funding as other provinces for legal-aid services provided to immigrants — other provinces get upwards of 90 per cent of the costs covered, while Ontario only got 35 per cent.
“Ontario welcomes more immigrants and refugees than any other province in Canada,” Downey wrote in a letter to Trudeau dated July 18. “Yet, Ontario receives the least federal funding to help cover the costs of claims in your federal tribunal.”
“I have one simple ask: instruct your Ministers to reply to Ontario’s earlier requests for proper federal funding of legal aid for immigration and refugee claimants,” the letter reads.
In a tweet posted Monday afternoon, Downey reacted to the funding announcement.
“It is good @justintrudeau has partially answered my call to accept responsibility to fund immigration and refugee legal aid,” he wrote. “Funding in non-election years is also needed.”
According to Trudeau, the federal government will also be topping up investments in other provinces to “reach the 100 per cent funding mark for legal aid immigrants and refugees.”
Over the next year, he said, the government will “engage in reflections and conversations” about how to ensure the long-term sustainability of legal aid for refugees and immigrants.
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“We will work very hard, like I know many Ontarians will to make sure that this Ontario government understands that you cannot continue to harm vulnerable people and pretend that you are actually for the people,” Trudeau said. “So that is what we are going to stay focused on.”
In a statement issued Monday, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) said it “welcomed” Monday’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,” CBA President Ray Adlington said.
“We recognize that there are complex issues at play when it comes to determining funding levels, but the CBA believes federal, provincial and territorial governments have a responsibility to show leadership on this issue.”
In a tweet posted Monday, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) applauded the announcement.
“CARL applauds the federal gov. for today’s announcement addressing the refugee and immigration legal aid crisis in Ontario. Legal aid is essential to the refugee and immigration systems,” the tweet reads.
“The funding crisis that resulted from Ontario’s reckless cuts created an untenable situation.”
— With files from Erica Vella and the Canadian Press