First asylum seekers housed in Gretna seniors' residence

Four asylum seekers are sleeping at a peaceful old seniors’ residence in Gretna, Man., for the next few days, after the reception centre quietly opened on Thursday evening.

Province-run centre for refugee claimants opens to 'mixed feelings' among residents on Thursday

A vacant former seniors' residence has been cleaned up and furnished to become a reception centre for people crossing the border into Canada. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Four asylum seekers are sleeping at a peaceful old seniors' residence in Gretna, Man., for the next few days, after the reception centre quietly opened on Thursday evening. 

The men were processed and screened at the border earlier in the day.

Two of them declined to be interviewed as they stepped out of the building into the evening sunshine, but had big smiles on their faces as they took in the street lined with character homes and tall trees.

"They were tired, they went right to sleep," said Carolyn Ryan, lead co-ordinator of the response on behalf of the Department of Families, who met the men shortly after.

She did not know where they were from originally or how long they had been in the United States before crossing over into Canada. One of the men had a thick French accent.

"These are folks who have crossed the border irregularly either through a field or some place other than at the actual border crossing. They are then intercepted by the RCMP and brought back to the port of Emerson," said Ryan.

These four are the first of a possible 60 asylum seekers that the seniors' residence can accommodate in its 17 suites, now that the province has chosen Gretna as a temporary housing site for people who have crossed into Canada, providing they have no other accommodations.
Carolyn Ryan, in white, gets the reception centre ready with a social worker on its opening day on Thursday. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

The claimants have 72 working hours before they must report to Border Services in Winnipeg to make their refugee claim. The hope is that the centre will help streamline the response and better manage the influx of people crossing into Canada.

"The need to coordinate is extremely urgent, to triage and be more proactive so that we can better plan people's departure from Gretna into Winnipeg and ensure they're getting the services they need once in Winnipeg," said Ryan.

"I wouldn't call it a crisis, but our resources in Winnipeg are increasingly strained," she said.

'Mixed feelings' in community

Many people in Gretna are rallying to welcome the newcomers, despite the news of the centre opening that caught many off guard. 

"I think it's serving a good purpose, I think it's a good thing for Gretna to be doing," said Doreen Mierau, who lives in Gretna and was at a community meeting about the centre on Wednesday. 

Donations of food, clothing, hygiene items and activities for children rolled in through the day as the centre's staff prepared for its first guests.
Suites have either one or three single beds, and all have a bathroom and kitchenette. There's also a common area with windows, tables and a foosball table and a courtyard with picnic tables. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"It's a complex situation and it's much broader than what's happening here on the ground here in Gretna, and there are mixed feelings and thoughts about this," said Robin Neustaeter, who put together hygiene kits and activities for children with donations from people in town. 

"It's been phenomenal. I've been really touched by people calling me up and saying, 'What can we do to help, is there anything that is needed?'" she added.

The province did not give the town much notice about plans for the centre and resident concerns over the lack of notice and information came to a head at the meeting announcing the it on Wednesday. 

"It doesn't hurt to ask, and why such short notice? It almost seemed like it was being rammed down our throat, which of course, creates a little bit of fear, and it can perpetuate it into some negativity," said Jeff Dyck, who runs Nora's Diner in Gretna. His house is across the street from the reception centre.

"Gretna is a very welcoming community. I think if you talk to anybody a lot of people are [saying] 'Yeah, OK, we'll help people, it's a good thing,'" he said.

Questions remain

Dyck said he and others would still like to meet with Border Services to have some questions answered, like how many of the claimants crossing over have criminal records, how long they've lived in the United States and how long will this continue.
Carolyn Ryan, lead coordinator of the response on behalf of the Department of Families, holds a towel and toiletries, along with a card reading 'Welcome to Canada.' (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"Somehow it just doesn't feel right, somehow. There should be a process there. You shouldn't just be able to walk in the door," he said, of claimants coming into the country from the United States.

"If some of them that are crossing illegally now that have been in the states for 10 to 17 years, I would say send those back to the states," said his customer, Dave Penner. 

"Anybody else that is leaving their country back home because of fear of bombing or whatever, if they cross illegally, they're welcome here. Let's help them. Get them jobs, whatever," he said.

But the overarching desire of people in town to help, and the work the provincial employees running the centre have done to keep people informed, has changed the minds of many who were originally against the centre, said Dyck — including his own.

"I'm OK with it. The only reason I am OK with it is those people have been more than welcoming to us in trying to get the answers that we want," he said. 

"They're doing the right thing and they truly believe in what they're doing, and that alone tells me I'm OK with this."

The claimants will go on to Winnipeg after three to five days, where they will have 15 more days to submit basis of claim documents. From there, a decision will be made as to whether they stay in Canada. 

"When people need help we need to step up. And I think these people need help. And it's not like they're going to move in for years on end, they're being processed. They just need a place to stay right now for a few days," said Mierau.

The centre has a security guard on site 24/7, plus three social workers during the day, all hired by the province. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Young people, elderly, families expected

The building they'll stay in is owned by Manitoba Housing and hasn't been used by seniors for years. The residence is bright, clean and well-equipped for living. 

Some of the suites have one single bed, others have three, and all suites have a bathroom and kitchenette. There is a common area with windows, tables and foosball table and a courtyard with picnic tables. 

Three social workers, all Income Assistance employees with Emergency Social Services, are on site during the day to help the claimants with their paperwork and to file for Income Assistance. There is a security guard on site 24/7 and a caretaker, all hired by the province.

"We will track costs very carefully. Costs are part of our discussions with the federal government, and we'll make statistics available monthly," said Ryan.

The social workers will bring the asylum seekers by van from the border, and they'll eat meals provided by the restaurant in the town's grocery store. 

"We expect to see young men and women, we expect to see families, perhaps some grandmas and grandpas," she said. 

And she expects the centre will get busy over the weekend.

"I can understand from the community's perspective it is moving very quickly," she said. 

"The reality of this situation is we've managed it with Winnipeg resources for this long, now we've had to look outside."

Asylum seekers arrive at reception centre in Gretna, Man.

6 years ago
Duration 2:02
People in the border community of Gretna are getting ready to welcome asylum seekers leaving the US in search of a new home. A building that has been vacant for years is now a reception centre and residents are collecting donations to help the newcomers feel more comfortable, even if they'll only be there a few days.