Montreal’s iconic Olympic Stadium will be the first place some newcomers to Canada call home, with the venue being pressed into use as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers as of Wednesday.
The first groups were bused to the stadium, where the rotunda was fitted with cots, blankets and food as Quebec contends with a recent influx of people entering the province from the United States.
Francine Dupuis, who oversees a Quebec government-funded program that helps asylum seekers land on their feet, said the recent spike is not what they’re used to handling — an increase confirmed by those manning the border.
The stadium plan is a temporary solution to deal with the sudden increase and will only be used for a couple of months, she said.
“We were using hotels and it’s too many places to manage with too few rooms,” Dupuis said. “And there aren’t so many places that can accommodate 300 people like this.”
Dupuis said with as many as 100 people coming in daily, she has been hunting for secondary spots to house people.
“We need to take all the offers that are being made to us.”
According to recent federal government data, figures for June suggested a “pronounced shift” in the number of people arriving in Canada at the Quebec-U.S. border.
Nationally, the RCMP intercepted 884 people between the ports of entry in June, up from 742 the month before. Of those, 781 were caught in Quebec.
Overall, Quebec has accounted for 3,350 of the 4,345 people who have crossed into Canada this year, as of late June.
Many of those arriving Wednesday were of Haitian descent.
In the United States, the Trump administration is considering ending a program that granted Haitians so-called “temporary protected status” following the massive earthquake that struck in 2010.
If the program isn’t extended, as many as 60,000 Haitians could be sent back to their homeland.
Dupuis said she’s been told many plan to move on to Ontario, but others who speak only Creole may take advantage of Montreal’s large Haitian population.
Guillaume Andre, a Montreal community worker, said he’s helped some people who have arrived previously from the United States.
“Some of them have parents here, friends here, who can help them,” said Andre, one of several Haitian-Montrealers who welcomed the new arrivals at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.
“We’re here to see how we too can provide help to them.”
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, an outspoken critic of the U.S. administration’s immigration policies, went on Twitter to welcome Haitian arrivals and tell them they can count on the city.
Coderre later tweeted that, according to his own sources, there were 2,500 new arrivals in Quebec via the United States in July, with as many as 500 currently held at St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, at the Quebec-New York State border.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the union representing Canada Border Services Agency border guards, said 500 people crossed illegally on Tuesday alone as he and a CBSA manager visited Roxham Road in Hemmingford, a popular crossing for asylum seekers since last November.
“The numbers have exploded in the last week and a half,” said Fortin. “My colleagues at the border said it was a similar day today (Wednesday).”
The agency doesn’t have any short-term solutions, Fortin said. In the medium term, they’re talking about building facilities to share with the RCMP, which handles the arrests.
Fortin is renewing a call made since last November for the federal government to allocate more resources to help exhausted border guards.
“It takes eight hours to actually conduct one file, so if you’re multiplying that by 500, it gives you an overview of the amount of work it’s generating for our officers right now,” Fortin said.
Richard Goldman of the Committee to Aid Refugees said it is too early to say if the spike in the number of asylum seekers will be sustained, but acknowledged that all services are feeling the crunch.
“Definitely, everything is overloaded and that’s why the Olympic Stadium is being put into service,” said Goldman. “There’s a great demand for all services.”
Part of the problem is that many of those entering Quebec have no intention of staying here and end up leaving for other cities, notably Toronto.
Goldman estimates that one-half of the people entering Quebec have plans to move elsewhere.
“In other words, this overload problem is due to the fact people are here temporarily and are planning to leave,” he said.
The influx has meant that admissibility hearings, where seekers at the border were getting initial vetting and a hearing date in the city of their choice, are no longer completed in 72 hours as was once the case.
Instead, those people are sent to Montreal for an appointment that could come one or two months later, Goldman said.
Goldman said there is a possible federal plan that would see migrants referred directly to the city of their choosing instead of waiting in Montreal.
Fortin confirmed the idea was raised by his employer this week, but added agents still have to do their due diligence.
“You need to make sure that these people at the beginning (are checked)…. before you send them to different places in Canada,” Fortin said.
Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil and Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois will provide an update on the situation Thursday.
— with files from Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press