Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he understands the concerns some Gretna residents have about asylum seekers staying in their small border community, but the province must uphold its responsibility under international agreements to help those seeking refugee status.
Some residents of Gretna, a community of 550 on the U.S. border about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, say they were shocked when Manitoba Housing announced it's setting up a reception centre for asylum seekers inside a former seniors' home that is currently vacant.
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Speaking to reporters in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Pallister said temporarily housing refugee claimants in Gretna takes some of the pressure off communities like Emerson, where many of the border crossings have been happening, as well as agencies helping claimants in Winnipeg.
"The volunteers, the community workers — not just in Emerson and that area along the border, but in the city of Winnipeg — have been really doing the lion's share of heavy lifting," he said.
"We're trying to act in support of them. We're acting out of a genuine concern for the health and well-being of all of us."
Carolyn Ryan, an official with Manitoba Housing, said the province had no choice but to arrange temporary housing options outside Winnipeg, as there are more asylum seekers crossing the border into Manitoba in recent months than there are temporary housing spaces in the city.
The reception centre in Gretna, which will open on Thursday, will house individuals and families arriving from the border near Emerson. They will stay there for two or three days before they are transferred to Winnipeg.
But news of the Gretna centre and the short notice given angered some residents who demanded a greater police presence at the border and questioned why asylum seekers are being accommodated. Some also raised concerns about strangers being housed so close to the local elementary school.
Pallister said he understands that some Manitobans are worried about their social services being compromised by government spending to help asylum seekers.
"We're spending taxpayers' money, hard-earned taxpayers' money, to try to provide a valuable service. We're also cognizant of the concerns some have that their services may be threatened by this investment in helping someone who's chosen to come here in an unorthodox manner; I get that," he said.
"But I do want them to understand we will dedicate ourselves continuously to doing the best possible job we can for all Manitobans on the services we need, but we can't disregard the reality of our obligations under international treaties, either."
Pallister said his government is still trying to convince the federal government to provide more support for services to help manage the ongoing wave of border crossers.
Ryan, with Manitoba Housing, said no seniors are being moved out of the Gretna facility because it has been vacant since 2012.
'We'll just give room for diverse views'
Meanwhile, Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel cited the Gretna reception centre in calling up on the federal Liberals to close a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement.
Under the agreement, those who have already made a refugee claim in the U.S. can't take their claim to Canada, and vice versa.
However, that rule is limited to turning back potential refugees at official land border crossings and airports, so claimants have been avoiding official border points by walking through fields and forests to enter Canada — often risking their lives in the process, refugee advocates and others said.
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"Manitoba has started to use a facility, which is supposed to hold Canadian seniors, as an emergency measure to deal with the huge influx of illegal border crossers. The community of Gretna and the entire province is furious because the Liberal government is doing nothing to stop this problem," Rempel said during question period in Parliament on Monday.
"Given that the Manitoba government is now requesting millions of tax dollars to deal with this situation, will the prime minister close the loophole on the Safe Third Country Agreement, stop this problem, and ensure that asylum seekers enter Canada through legal means?"
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen responded by saying Canada will not seek changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The national immigration refugee board will assess each refugee claim and remove people who "do not have a good case" from the country, he said.
"We are committed to our international obligations to give each and every one who claims asylum due process and a fair hearing," he said.
On Tuesday, Pallister brushed off criticism about his government using provincial resources to provide shelter to asylum seekers.
"We'll just give room for diverse views on that. We have an obligation under international agreements to provide care to people, and we'll do that," he said.
"I've said repeatedly we need to the federal government to step up and do their part, just as Manitobans have been, and that dialogue continues. But there is no doubt in my mind that Manitobans are the most caring people in the country of Canada, so I think we'll just have to continue to make sure that we stand up for those who need our help, regardless of how they choose to come here."