$11M from Ottawa for asylum seekers 'an important step forward,' Toronto mayor says

The $11-million commitment from the federal government to help Toronto cope with an influx of asylum seekers is an "important step forward," Mayor John Tory said Friday, but cautioned that more money will soon be needed.

Federal Border Security Minister Bill Blair, Mayor John Tory spoke at news conference today

Toronto Mayor John Tory, left, and Bill Blair, federal minister of border security, tried to show a unified front at a joint news conference Friday morning as the province and Ottawa wage a war of words over an influx of asylum seekers. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The $11-million commitment from the federal government to help Toronto cope with an influx of asylum seekers is an "important step forward," Mayor John Tory said Friday, but cautioned that more money will soon be needed.

Tory and Bill Blair, federal minister of border security, told at a morning news conference that the additional funding has been formally transferred to the city's control. 

The funding comes days after Ottawa said it would pay for hundreds of asylum seekers currently living in two college residences to stay in hotels until the end of September. As of October, it will fall on the city to find them permanent  housing — a task that Tory has repeatedly said could prove a tremendous strain on finite municipal resources.  

A joint news release issued Friday morning said some 376 people were in the dorms as of Aug. 2. 

Blair said talks will continue between the city and federal officials on longer-term solutions that could include further financial support for temporary housing for asylum seekers.

Tory expressed relief that the federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to help the city, but also said more will be necessary in coming months. 

An RCMP officer questions a man attempting to cross into Canada at a border crossing in New York. The Ontario government has been in a war of words with Ottawa over whether to call an influx of asylum seekers coming from the U.S. a border a 'crisis.' (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"I described it as an important step forward, which it is," said Tory, when asked if he thought the $11 million was an adequate contribution to the city. 

He added that city staff are struggling to cope with the number of asylum seekers, especially when it comes to securing permanent housing. In 2016, some 11 per cent of refugees who came to Toronto relied on the city's shelter system. As of this month, Tory said, some 40 per cent of refugees find themselves in the network of city-run shelters at some point.

The money transferred to Toronto this week was originally announced in June as part of a $50-million commitment to Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba to help cover some of the costs they have undertaken as a result of the ongoing spike in asylum seekers crossing the Canada-U.S. border improperly.

Today's show of solidarity between Toronto and the federal governments comes amid a war of words between Queen's Park and Ottawa over border security and policy. 

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister responsible for immigration, has blamed the federal government for what she says is an unsustainable "crisis" for the province. MacLeod and Hussen have traded barbs in the media over the issue.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the premiers of Quebec and Saskatchewan have demanded that Ottawa cover all of the province's expenses for processing and housing asylum seekers, a figure that, according to MacLeod, stands at around $200 million.

Blair downplayed the controversy to reporters, and said he looks forward to sitting down with MacLeod to work out a compromise. 

"We've got an obligation to get the job done," Blair said of finding appropriate accommodations for asylum claimants.

Tory and Blair also expressed optimism that a so-called triage centre, scheduled to be set up in Cornwall, Ont., by September, will help to more efficiently direct asylum seekers to communities where housing and employment are readily available. 

Nonetheless, the debate over asylum seekers has proved politically fraught for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, as relentless messaging from the federal Tories on the issue appears to be taking hold with voters. 

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that a majority of Canadians it surveyed said the number of of asylum seekers crossing into the country is too high. That online poll comes after weeks of Tory attacks painting Trudeau's border policies as the root cause of the crisis.

In a statement, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel criticized the federal government's attempt to ease strain on Toronto.

"Instead of presenting a fully costed, long-term plan to Canadians, Justin Trudeau has instead chosen to set up a permanent hotel program to deal with the influx of illegal border crossers. This is yet another example of an unbudgeted, Band-Aid solution by this irresponsible Liberal government." 

With files from The Canadian Press

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