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Telling feds to pay more for asylum seekers is fair game for Premier Ford, stopping cooperation is not

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New Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move to stop cooperating with Ottawa on asylum seekers arriving in the province is, at best, a negotiating tactic for more federal support, and at worst, a cynical, political manoeuvre at the expense of good public policy. Let’s hope it’s more the former than the latter.

Mr. Ford has cancelled a deal his predecessor signed with the federal government in November that aimed to coordinate provincial and federal policies for dealing with the thousands of asylum claimants who have crossed the Quebec border with New York and travelled to English-speaking Ontario for shelter, and ended his government’s cooperation with the feds on the issue, The Toronto Star reported. He has given no sign so far that he plans to hash out a new agreement.

The federal government has specifically been looking for information from Ontario on the location of shelter and social housing spaces outside of Toronto, so it can direct border-crossers to travel to those places instead of the big city. Toronto Mayor John Tory has pleaded for help from both levels of government, saying Toronto’s social housing can’t accommodate any more migrants as they wait for work permits that would allow them to pay for shelter on their own, or Immigration and Refugee Board decisions on the validity of their claims.

However, Mr. Ford and Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod are portraying their decision to cancel the deal and suspend their cooperation as a matter of principle; the federal Liberals are to blame for attracting the asylum-seekers and allowing them to cross the border illegally, so the Ontario government shouldn’t have to help them clean up the mess, or to pay for their accommodation, seems to be the argument.

Ms. MacLeod blamed the sudden flood of migrants on a tweet from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January 2017, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on refugees, as well as on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” read Mr. Trudeau’s tweet.

“He was the one that tweeted out that everyone was welcome here, and, as a result of that, we’ve had thousands of people cross the border illegally and it’s putting a strain on many of our public resources,” Ms. MacLeod told reporters last week. “If he wants to welcome them in, that’s fine, but he should make sure he’s paying for them and compensating the municipalities as well as the provincial government.”

The most recent wave of asylum-seekers who have descended upon Ontario is made up mostly of Nigerians who successfully picked up temporary U.S. visas, flew there, and headed north. The Immigration and Refugee Board has determined that more than half of them are not legitimate refugees—it has accepted 30 per cent of asylum claims from Nigerians this year, versus 44 per cent for each of the past two year— who are “fleeing persecution, terror, and war,” as Mr. Trudeau put it.

Some, including the federal Conservatives, are arguing that the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States should be extended to cover the whole border, allowing the government to turn the asylum-seekers back into the U.S.. The Liberals and others who oppose that idea say Canada’s border is too big to physically block migrants at every possible entry point, and that the Donald Trump administration has signalled it will reject refugee claimants fleeing domestic or gang violence. There’s room for a healthy debate there; in reality, the vast majority of migrants crossing into Quebec are coming in a spot so narrow and predictable that Mounties are there waiting for them, and could block them, though doing so could simply encourage them to re-route to other crossings.

But Mr. Ford and Ms. MacLeod aren’t arguing for a change to the Safe Third Country Agreement or a better arrangement with the feds. They are either, it seems, playing hardball for more funding from the feds—not unreasonable, given that Ottawa’s promised $11-million for the province won’t buy a lot of housing in urban Ontario—or simply washing their hands of a problem that they did not engineer, but that nonetheless is affecting Ontario residents.

Federal-provincial cooperation on an issue that affects both levels of government is, at face value, what Canadians would expect from their elected officials. Let’s hope there’s more to Premier Ford’s plan than simply walking away from the problem.  

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