Montreal schools brace for influx of asylum seekers

Thinking about school comes early for asylum seekers in Montreal, as Monday is the first day they can sign their children up to attend classes at the city's largest French-language school board.

French-language school board works to get newly arrived children in classrooms by end of month

Asylum seekers arrive at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, where an emergency shelter was opened to accommodate a surging number of claimants crossing the border from the United States. (Radio-Canada)

Calinx Dieu Juste and his family crossed the border into Canada from the United States only four days ago, and they're already thinking about school. 

Three of his four children are between ages eight and 12, meaning soon enough, they will have to enrol into a French-language school if they plan to stay in the province.

Monday is the first day asylum seekers who recently arrived in Montreal can sign their children up for school at the city's largest French-language school board, the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). 

But Dieu Juste says it's not something he's worried about, even if his children had started learning English at the school they were attending in Virginia. 

Calinx Dieu Juste and his wife Lucille outside the YMCA residence on Tupper Street in Montreal. (CBC)

"It's not too big a deal. If any person can learn English, they can learn French also," Dieu Juste, who is originally from Haiti, told CBC News. 

Increase in enrolment

The CSDM has experienced a 14 per cent increase in enrolment this year already, the equivalent of a small elementary school's population.

"I would say it's unheard of," CSDM president Catherine Harel Bourdon told Radio-Canada. "But it's an essential service.

"We will need some money from the Education Ministry to make sure that we have all the equipment and everything available to make sure the children all have the chance to learn French," Harel Bourdon said. 

Catherine Harel Bourdon, president of the Commission scolaire de Montréal, says the school board is doing everything it can to have all of the school-age asylum seekers enrolled by the first day of classes Aug. 28. (Radio-Canada)

In a statement, the ministry said it has reached out to the school board to plan for the upcoming year, and would be evaluating enrolment numbers before determining whether to inject funds into Montreal's school system.

Quebec has seen a rise in asylum seekers crossing the border illegally following U.S. President Donald Trump's election last November, with the most arriving in the past two months.

Address required to sign up

The majority are Haitian nationals, fearing deportation after Trump announced his administration would end the temporary protected status given to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake. Many will lose status as early as January.

They are being housed in centres across the city, including at the Olympic Stadium, and must apply for refugee status if they want to stay in Canada.

There is an obstacle, however, to enrolling children in school. To sign up with the CSDM, you need a home address.

Only 10 Haitian families had signed up so far, according to the CSDM. They have been in the city for several weeks.

Harel Bourdon said the school board is doing everything it can to make sure the rest of those who've arrived "will be in our classes as soon as Aug. 28," when school starts.

'They have abandoned everything'

Josué Loubondo, who migrated from the Congo, one of the countries Canada has an official moratorium on deportations to, was volunteering at the YMCA Tupper Street residence where many asylum claimants are staying.

Josué Loubondo, a volunteer for the YMCA residence on Tupper Street, says school is the last of worries for many asylum seekers, who've just arrived to Canada. (CBC)

He said many haven't had the chance to think about schooling yet and are mostly preoccupied with applying for status.

"They're seven, eight years old, they have abandoned everything, they don't understand French, they came here to start from zero," Loubondo said.

Dieu Juste and his family came to Canada after their claims for political asylum were rejected in the U.S.

"If they send us back to Haiti, we're going to lose our lives," Dieu Juste said outside a YMCA.

He said he knew the implications of crossing the border outside ports of entry, but felt it was his family's only option. 

With files from CBC's Simon Nakonechny