As the number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada surges, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale pledged cash for the small Manitoba town most affected by the influx and said the federal government will continue to watch the situation.
"At this moment it's simply not physically possible to predict what that flow will be some weeks down the road," he said.
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Goodale was joined by Manitoba MP and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr on Saturday to observe what's happening on the ground in the town on the U.S.-Canada border.
He said all levels of government are communicating with each other about the influx of people.
"The reaction of the community has been truly inspiring and I really want to say on behalf of the prime minister and the government of Canada and most importantly all Canadians that you have represented the very best instincts and values of Canadians in responding," Goodale said.
Manitoba RCMP said Saturday they have come into contact with 183 people entering into Manitoba somewhere other than an official border crossing so far in 2017. That number doesn't include asylum seekers who may have walked over without coming into contact with police.
From Tuesday to Friday alone, RCMP intercepted 40 people. Twenty-four people crossed on Friday and of them, 14 were still waiting at the Emerson border Saturday for processing, according to Rita Chahal, the executive director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which works with asylum seekers.
"I am here to see the situation on the ground, to understand the exact physical and logistical circumstances," Goodale told reporters at the community's fire hall on Saturday morning.
$30K for volunteer fire department
Goodale said meeting with people in Emerson will help the government anticipate the flow of asylum seekers into the future and appreciate what the local community, RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency and first responders have had to deal with as the flow of asylum seekers continues to grow.
On Saturday, Goodale announced that Emerson would receive $30,000 so the community's "normal budget is not depleted by these extraordinary circumstances." The town had already used one-third of its fire department budget specifically to respond to asylum seekers.
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For the time being, Goodale added that no extra resources were necessary for RCMP and CBSA because the agencies were able to reallocate resources internally.
Greg Janzen, the reeve of Emerson, said he has been happy with the response from all levels of government. Since the major surge in asylum seekers began about a month ago, he has been in constant communication with the province and the federal government, he said.
The extra funds for the community will cover the current pressures put on the community's 21-member volunteer fire department, but Janzen said he has been assured that if the refugee flow continues, so will the funding.
"There is no cap on it right now, there is no end to it," he said. "I have [it] in good faith, I am confident that our costs will be covered."
Settling asylum seekers
In Winnipeg, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which runs Welcome Place, a newcomer resettlement agency, made a public appeal for $300,000 to pay for the costs associated with the influx of asylum seekers on Saturday.
Goodale said Ahmed Hussen, minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has been in touch with settlement agencies in Winnipeg and across the country to assess the situation.
"The assessment is being undertaken by the immigration department and they will be in touch with all of their partners in the private sector and among the civil society groups," he said.
Premier Brian Pallister has also sent a letter to Justin Trudeau calling for more resources, as the province is under pressure because of the surge in asylum seekers.
In the letter obtained by CBC News dated Feb. 21, the premier wrote that the rising number of refugee claimants entering Manitoba is having a significant impact in a number of areas — in particular, on the caseloads of Legal Aid Manitoba, which provides legal assistance from the initiation of the refugee claim to the completion of the process.
Goodale said there have been conversations with the province and the premier, but the prime minister will respond to Pallister's letter.
No changes to border, Goodale says
For people worried about safety, Goodale said the integrity of the border is being maintained. Each day, about 400,000 people cross the border and it handles $2.5 billion in trade, so the hundreds of asylum seekers need to be seen in the total context, Goodale added.
"I want to make the point that all Canadian laws are being enforced. That is an absolute fundamental in these circumstances," he said.
"It is the longest most open international boundary quite frankly in the history of the world and one of the most successful," Goodale added.
Asylum seekers have been walking through snow-covered fields, often in frigid temperatures, to reach Canada.
They've been using an exception in the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which allows refugee claims from people who've entered the country somewhere other than an official port of entry.
Under the agreement, refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in — meaning would-be claimants arriving at an official border crossing from the U.S. would be turned back.
There have been calls to suspend the agreement, but Goodale said there are still no plans to move in that direction.
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"Safe Third is an agreement that has served Canada very well over the course of the last 10 to 15 years. It has proven to be an effective and compassionate tool and the immigration department, at this stage, has no basis to doubt its continued efficacy," he said.
Manitoba Conservative MP for Provencher Ted Falk put out a news release in response to Goodale's visit, calling for more action to protect the border.
Falk said the prime minister should publicly say if he opposes the irregular border crossings and "immediately close the loophole which is allowing for this abuse of our Canadian generosity."