OTTAWA - Opposition MPs are accusing the federal government of putting refugees at risk in what the NDP and Liberals say is a blatant political appeal to voters who harbour suspicions of newcomers.
“It’s completely mean-minded,” NDP MP Craig Scott said. “The government is basically trying to create a strong signal to the provinces to start cutting back on social assistance to refugee claimants.”
He was responding to a controversial measure buried in the 458-page omnibus budget implementation bill tabled last week by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
The measure could make it harder for refugee claimants to obtain social assistance, and would change the rules governing Ottawa’s financial transfer payments to the provinces that help pay for social programs. Under current legislation, provincial governments are barred from setting a minimum residency requirement before a refugee claimant can qualify for welfare.
But the new proposal, based on a private member’s bill previously put forward by Conservative MP Corneliu Chisu (Pickering-Scarborough East), would not penalize provinces if they impose minimum residency requirements on refugee claimants applying for welfare.
“They are actually saying we’re vacating the space where we would normally expect or require the provinces” to provide social assistance to refugee claimants, Scott told the Toronto Star. “The federal government is saying, ‘You do what you want, as long as it’s just a refugee claimant, we don’t care.’ ”
The government says it is up to the provinces to decide if there should be a residency requirement for refugee claimants seeking social assistance. “We are only giving the provinces and territories the tools they need in order to deliver their individual social assistance regimes as they see fit,” said Kevin Menard, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.
The government, which is also trying to lessen refugee claimants’ access to public health care, has said Canada has a generous system and Canadians are tired of newcomers taking advantage of that system.
But refugee and anti-poverty groups say the proposal contained in last week’s budget bill will deprive asylum-seekers of assistance when they need it most.
“It will put refugee claimants at a serious disadvantage,” said Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“I’m thinking of the pregnant women and the mothers with small children who arrive in Canada knowing no one, having fled persecution in their country of origin,” Rico said. “They will soon be accepted as refugees and become contributing members of society, but when they first arrive, they desperately need a helping hand. Denying that helping hand would be contrary to who we are as a country.”
Liberal MP John McCallum said of the government move, “I think they are playing to their base, who tend not to like refugees, and they are trying to make Canada an unwelcoming place for refugees so they will go elsewhere or stay home.”