Alberta government announces new hotline, pre-arrival information for Ukrainian evacuees
Government should direct funding to settlement agencies, say those on front lines
The Alberta government is creating a hotline for Ukrainian evacuees looking for help with provincial services when they arrive in the province.
The help desk should be running by mid-April, according to the government, and will employ Ukrainian and Russian speakers who can help the newcomers with tasks such as applying for health insurance, or completing applications.
"Many evacuees do not have any family or friends here to help them navigate information systems, and especially in a new language," Trade, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Rajan Sawhney said at a news conference in Mundare on Tuesday.
The step is one of several new measures suggested by a premier's task force on Ukraine that will cost about $2.1 million this year, Premier Danielle Smith and Sawhney said.
About $1 million of that will be dedicated to providing information to Ukrainians before they arrive in the province.
The funding is separate from about $7 million that has been earmarked over three years to help settlement agencies dealing with an influx of newcomers to Alberta.
More than 26,500 people who fled the war in Ukraine have arrived in Alberta as temporary residents since the invasion began in February 2022.
Orysia Boychuk, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress — Alberta Provincial Council, says the federal government has given approval to hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians to seek safety in Canada. With about a quarter of the evacuees choosing Alberta so far, the province could see another 100,000 people arrive, should the war continue, she said.
Although volunteers generously donated money, supplies, and time and opened their homes to newcomers, many volunteers are getting burned out, she said, while the need persists.
Boychuk hopes once the legislature approves the provincial budget, there will be more grants forthcoming for agencies and programs to help the thousands of people arriving with almost nothing.
A stable and affordable place to live is their most immediate need, as is employment. Federal cash to help evacuees get settled will last just a few weeks, she said.
The congress has applied for provincial funding to establish a flexible language training program that would allow newcomers to take some classes remotely and meet in small groups.
For evacuees arriving without fluent English, they can be stuck months waiting to get into a free or affordable English class, Boychuk said.
"They don't have that time to wait," she said, as they need to make a living.
The organization also runs career fairs to connect Ukrainians with employers experiencing worker shortages. They need a better process for Canadian institutions to recognize overseas professional and trade credentials, Boychuk said.
Congress has its own hotline
As for a provincial hotline, Boychuk says the congress has been running such a service for the past 13 months, around the clock, with about 30 to 40 volunteers.
The organization has also bolstered its website with pre-arrival information for Ukrainians looking to come to Canada.
"I'm hoping that this hotline is something we can work together with, and I hope it's not a duplication of services," she said.
Sawhney's press secretary, Garrett Koehler, said Service Alberta will run the phone line and it will be separate from the service provided by the congress.
Critics say the government should be increasing funding to settlement organizations instead of replicating services they already offer.
Former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk has raised funds for supplies for Ukrainians still remaining in the country and helps some families who are arriving in Alberta.
He said he's frustrated that the provincial government isn't working more closely with organizations like the congress to shore up the work they've done since Day 1 on a shoestring budget.
"What it really is is an announcement to you and me, pre-election government, wanting to show us how much they want to help Ukrainians," Lukaszuk said on Tuesday. "But when it actually comes to tangible help, it's just not there."
He said the government should be giving additional funding to Alberta schools now enrolling students who may arrive speaking little English and who have experienced trauma.
Edmonton Catholic Schools has enrolled 1,008 Ukrainian students since March 2022, 91 of whom arrived this month, spokesperson Christine Meadows said.
As of late December, Edmonton Public Schools had enrolled 309 Ukrainian students.
While any additional funding is welcome, more of it should be going directly to frontline services, said Vic Camara, deputy executive director of settlement organization Francophonie Albertaine Plurielle (FRAP). The group has helped nearly 120 Ukrainians during the past year.
Such small groups could use more government funds to hire more settlement workers, and place workers in schools, Camara said.
"That money should go to the settlement agencies like us," he said. "The in-person service is more valuable for our clients. Because people are in need right away."
With files from Audrey Neveu