Ukrainian reception centre in Winnipeg part of 'robust response' refugee groups hope to see more of in future

Manitoba offered a glimpse inside its welcoming centre for Ukrainian refugees on Wednesday, which newcomer groups say is a sign of the well-resourced effort they hope becomes the standard for refugee settlement moving forward. 

'It's quite exceptional ... to those of us who have worked with refugees over the years,' says IRCOM director

The emergency social services table staff prepare to help Ukrainians navigating the resettlement process on Wednesday at the Ukrainian Refugee Reception Centre in Winnipeg. (CTV Pool)

Manitoba offered a glimpse inside its welcoming centre for Ukrainian refugees on Wednesday, which newcomer groups say is a sign of a well-resourced effort they hope becomes the standard for refugee settlement moving forward. 

"It's quite noticeable in the Ukrainians that we've come forward with a really robust response," said Shereen Denetto, executive director at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba. "It's quite exceptional and really interesting to those of us who have worked with refugees over the years."

Run by the province and with help from the federal government, the Ukrainian Refugee Reception Centre operates out of a Best Western hotel near the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport.

Nearly 350 Ukrainians have already come through the reception centre, and several hundred more are expected soon via chartered commercial flights through the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program. CUAET comes with a work visa, which triggers availability of a provincial health card and related services.

As Ukrainians arrive they have direct access to a range of supports at the centre, including housing, counselling, language, mental health, Manitoba Public Insurance, employment and other resources.

"All of these things are not necessarily the norm, and I think that's really exciting," said Emily Halldorson, the provincial co-ordinator at the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations.

The reception centre offers a range of direct settlement services including connecting families with what they need to get kids enrolled in school. (CTV Pool)

Halldorson said chartered flights, the creation of the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program, reduction in red tape for things like health cards, and levels of financial contributions from different levels of government provide a good model for how things could be done in the settlement space generally moving forward. 

"The reception centre has not been done at the provincial level before," said Halldorson.

"I would just hope that that means we're going to see those kinds of quick actions, mobilization, in order to help future groups of newcomers that are arriving as well, because I think that these are really great initiatives and hopefully we're setting a precedent for the future."

Denetto also hopes this experience serves as a template moving forward.

People line up for services at the Ukrainian Refugee Receptio Centre at a hotel near the Winnipeg airport on Wednesday. (CTV Pool)

She was around when a wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Manitoba in 2015. What's similar in the current context is how Canadians are rising to the occasion to help.

However, Denetto also noted just how robust and rapid the overall response has been from Canadian governments and the public with respect to the Ukraine crisis, including with regard to the erection of a welcome centre full of resources.

Denetto said IRCOM has always asked for that kind of accessible range of services to be available to refugees upon arrival.

"A lot of those services are actually being brought to the Ukrainian families right under that same roof, so that is a fantastic model," she said. 

"I think what happened here is they really listened to communities, to the Ukrainian communities, to people who've worked in settlement who said, 'These are the best ways to make this happen effectively,' and they did it. So it sort of says where there is a will there is a way."

Shereen Denetto is executive director at the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, or IRCOM. (Zoom/CBC)

Denetto said some of the evidence that governments are listening closely to communities is evident in the small details. 

The welcome centre is providing Ukrainian and Russian translations of a book for children called Big Feelings Come and Go. The book is considered a resource for caregivers and families to talk through trauma and learn self-regulation skills.

"Normally in the resettlement process of refugees you don't get to that until quite far down the road and you're waiting to see trauma showing up in school, in families, in daycares," Denetto said. 

"It might seem like a small thing but it says something about really understanding … refugee newcomers, what they've experienced and how we can support them."

A common room at the reception centre is filled with tables staffed by people from different sectors there to help Ukrainians navigate settlement. This one includes resources for children, including Ukrainian translation of the book pictured here, Big Feelings Come and Go. (CTV Pool)

IRCOM currently has low-income immigrants from 22 different countries — including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Vietnam, and Venezuela — housed in two of its buildings. Ukrainians in need would be welcomed there too, said Denetto.

A provincial spokesperson said services from the Manitoba government flow from special federal measures Canada adopted for Ukrainians fleeing amid Russian invasion. CUAET is one such measure triggered by the "unprecedented temporary resident immigration stream" at the federal level.

"Other announced aspects of the federal program have triggered federal-provincial collaboration, as the provincial government is in a position to plug gaps more quickly, such as expediting educational enrolment while the transition from emergency provincial hotel accommodations to longer-term community accommodations occurs," the provincial statement reads.

"A wide range of provincial services has been provided in other situations, with different federal approaches to Canadian entry, such as Government Assisted Refugees and asylum seekers."

Winnipeg Ukrainian Refugee Centre helps those fleeing war

3 months ago
Duration 1:35
Manitoba offered a glimpse inside its welcoming centre for Ukrainian refugees on Wednesday, which newcomer groups say is a sign of a well-resourced effort they hope becomes the standard for refugee settlement moving forward.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Sheila North