The Manitoba government is providing more assistance to refugee claimants as it continues to press the federal government to step up its response to the steady stream of asylum seekers pouring into Canada from the United States at Emerson.
At a news conference Thursday at Welcome Place, Premier Brian Pallister pledged $110,000 in additional funding to the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council to provide support services to refugee claimants —including paralegal services and safe transportation to Winnipeg from the U.S. border.
The province will also provide $70,000 to the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations to hire a refugee response co-ordinator for a 12-month period.
And, it will immediately supply 14 new emergency housing units to meet the growing need for temporary shelter for asylum seekers. As of Wednesday, 111 refugee claimants had entered Canada illegally near Emerson since Jan. 1.
In a room packed with refugee-service providers, asylum seekers, government officials and journalists —some from as far away as Japan — Pallister emphasized that Manitoba would continue to offer a warm welcome to the newcomers, but said Ottawa could be doing more to help.
"This is a national issue, not solely one that we are facing here in Manitoba," he said. "We must remember also that there is a need for a national and co-ordinated approach."
Pressed for specifics, the premier said the province is seeking improved information sharing from the federal government and assurances that "services are effectively managed."
He suggested there must also be an acknowledgement from Ottawa that action is needed to address a situation "that some would fear is getting somewhat out of hand."
"I would encourage... the federal government to move beyond the talking points of us having a worse problem 15 years ago and recognize there is a challenge today. We need to face the challenges of today together," the premier said.
Pallister sent a letter Tuesday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlining his concerns. His staff would not divulge the contents of the letter, although Manitoba is said to be concerned about the length of time in which refugee claimants are the financial responsibility of the province — four months — before federal funding kicks in. Once it does arrive, federal settlement funding for refugee claimants lasts for only one year.
The province announced the modest new measures as it tackles a billion-dollar deficit and faces increasing costs on several fronts — from health care and education to a potentially expensive major spring flood.
Pallister has also been facing pressure for assistance from municipalities in dealing with asylum seekers. One prime concern is the stress put on local fire and paramedic services when refugee claimants cross the boundary on foot after spending hours in bone-chilling temperatures.
Greg Janzen, reeve of Emerson Franklin Municipality, said local volunteer firefighters, some of whom have first-responder training, have been answering numerous calls for help to assist the border-jumpers.
"When we do get medical calls our first-responders are there before the ambulances," Janzen said Thursday.
There is also concern that the Southern Health authority's paramedic resources are being stretched by calls at the border.
"If there is a traffic accident out at Plum Coulee and all the ambulances are sitting at the border, somebody is not getting service," Janzen said.
The reeve, who attended Thursday's news conference, said he was "really happy" that the premier indicated he would work with the Paramedic Association of Manitoba to station primary-care paramedics at Emerson on a temporary basis.
Eric Glass, administrative director with PAM, said his organization is interested in working with the province and Southern Health to place a paramedic in the border community to assess asylum seekers and provide any initial care required. He said such a move would not necessarily require the presence of an ambulance.
"We want to make this happen because we think it's something that the community will benefit from," Glass said.
Along with announcing new supports for agencies that provide services to refugee claimants, the province announced Thursday that it would introduce new programs to assist newcomers to find employment as soon as they are able to work legally in Canada.
Education and Training Minister Ian Wishart said the province will spend $1.1 million in the coming year on four pilot projects with training centres such as Red River College and the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology to provide job skills in such areas as construction, manufacturing and the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, the recipients of the new funding announced Thursday were thankful for the support.
"We are absolutely delighted that the premier and the government of Manitoba have made this announcement," said Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. "We don’t have a lot of the details yet, but we look forward to working with them to ensure that this money is used effectively in the service delivery (for) refugee claimants."
Asked whether the $110,000 in extra funding would be sufficient given the likelihood of many more asylum seekers entering the province in the future, she said: "It’s too early to speculate, but we will monitor it (the situation)."
Updated on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 3:41 PM CST: Updates