A visit by two federal Conservative politicians to the Manitoba border town of Emerson on Friday morning has highlighted the growing divisions in the community over the influx of asylum seekers.
Ted Falk and Michelle Rempel held a news conference to call on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the town, which has faced a surge in asylum seekers entering Canada.
After the news conference, a group of local residents got in a heated conversation about an interview Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen did with NBC News, published on Wednesday, in which he spoke about a local man finding asylum seekers in the community.
"There's a streetlight outside his place and sees six, seven, eight people — all black people — they are not from Emerson," Janzen said in the interview.
Joyce Dayton, who has lived in the community for 17 years, called the reeve's comments racist, but resident Tanya Neufeld argued it wasn't.
"It's about our country and what is right and what is wrong," Dayton said.
"How is it OK for people to illegally cross our borders, but it wouldn't be OK to refer to somebody by the colour of their skin," Neufeld responded.
Dayton also confronted Rempel after she spoke, saying the two politicians were only present for "political gain" and not to actually help the community. Rempel responded that they were there asking for Trudeau to take action.
"He has. He opened the gate," Dayton said. "He is welcoming people, like we have in Canada. All of us are from immigrants here. There is not one of us who isn't. You are only so many miles from a First Nations reserve here. My son-in-law is of mixed race. We have all kinds of people here in Emerson."
The border town of Emerson, about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg with a population around 670, has become one of three main places where asylum seekers bypass official ports of entry to come into Canada.
In the first two months of 2017, 195 people crossed into Manitoba that way, according to figures from the federal government, compared with 575 in all of 2016. In March, 170 people were intercepted crossing into Manitoba, Citizenship and Immigration Canada said.
Falk, MP for Provencher, told the handful of residents who came to watch him speak that the numbers continue to increase, putting pressures on local communities, the province and the country's refugee system.
"We are here today to invite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tour the area with us, to see for himself what's happening, to speak to the residents of Emerson-Franklin and come here and share their concerns, which are not only concerns for the folks of Emerson-Franklin but [are] concerns shared by millions across Canada," said Falk, standing on a road where hundreds of asylum seekers have travelled after entering Canada.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has asked Ottawa for more funding to handle the influx of asylum seekers.
Pallister said in March that the province will spend more than $20 million this year on refugees, and it will not be enough to accommodate the roughly 1,200 asylum seekers his government predicts will cross over from the United States into Manitoba.
Falk has been a vocal critic of Trudeau's response to the growth in the number of asylum seekers, calling on the federal Liberals to close a loophole that allows people who walk across the border to claim refugee status despite the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. requires asylum seekers to file for refugee status in the first country they arrive in, but Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, which allows those who cross the border at an unofficial point of entry to legally make a claim here without being prosecuted for the illegal entry.
"The number of illegal migrants coming into Canada continues to climb every month and monitoring the situation is simply not enough. The loophole must be closed," Falk said on Friday.
Falk said Canadians expect their border to be secure and the refugee system to be consistent and fair to everyone.
Rempel, a Calgary MP originally from Manitoba, called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons next week.
"We hope that all parliamentarians, because this is not just a Manitoba issue, will engage in debate on this issue and put pressure on the prime minister to address this issue through a change in this agreement," she said.
It is not about Canadians not wanting to show compassion to refugees, she said, but concern that if there isn't a permanent solution, the strain on resources will continue to grow.
"Anybody in this community or other affected communities across the country are expressing grave concerns that this will only increase and perhaps even sharply increase as the summer months continue," she said.
This week, a former seniors' residence in Gretna, Man., about 25 kilometres west of Emerson, was converted into a temporary housing site for asylum seekers. The centre can house up to 60 people in its 17 suites, and the province hopes it will help to streamline the response and better manage the influx of people crossing into Canada.
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The union representing border patrol officers has also raised concerns, asking for more staff to deal with the extra pressures from the influx of asylum seekers.
The MPs were joined by Janzen, who said the community is not against immigration or refugees, but there is a lot of concern about safety when asylum seekers come over at night and get lost in the prairie fields.
"What we are asking for is just amend the Safe Third Country Agreement or close the loophole and let them come through the port of entry instead of coming across illegally," he said.
"It seems kind of ridiculous that they are a mile and a half away when they could just go to the point of entry and claim asylum there."
Rempel, asked if Janzen's message was different from the Conservative MPs', said "It's the same message."
Janzen spoke to CBC News following the federal budget, saying he was frustrated it didn't contain any new funds to address the asylum seekers.
Emergency crews in Emerson, including firefighters, have been called to respond to lost or stranded asylum seekers who need help getting to the Canada Border Services office to file a claim. The community was promised $30,000 from the government so its normal budget wouldn't be depleted by its response.