Montreal

Protesters call on Trudeau to grant asylum seekers on COVID-19 front line permanent residency

A group of advocates for asylum seekers held a demonstration outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Montreal riding office Saturday, calling for his government to grant permanent residency to those who are already in the country and working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec.

Growing number of community groups, advocates and opposition politicians are calling for action

A demonstrator holds a sign with the picture of Marcelin François, an asylum seeker who worked as a patient attendant and died of COVID-19 last month. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

A group of advocates for asylum seekers held a demonstration outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Montreal riding office Saturday, calling for his government to grant permanent residency to those who are already in the country and working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec.

More than 100 people gathered outside the office on Crémazie Boulevard, wearing masks and waving signs and Haitian flags.

Many asylum seekers in Quebec are from Haiti — thousands crossed into Canada at Roxham Road in 2017, a well-trodden entry point for asylum-seekers coming from the U.S.

"We are here to ask the government to recognize the sacrifices of our workers," said Wilner Cayo, one of the organizers and the president of Debouts pour la dignité, an advocacy organization.

"Grant them their permanent residency. They work too hard for us, for our elders. Please, please, let's be human."

One woman held a sign with the picture of Marcelin François on it. François was a Haitian asylum seeker working in a long-term care home who died last month following complications as a result of COVID-19.

His death was first reported in La Presse and fuelled calls for the provincial and federal governments to guarantee asylum seekers like him would be able to stay. 

The health crisis has shone a light on the crucial role asylum seekers and others with precarious status play in the province's economy, with thousands working as patient attendants in long-term care homes and filling other essential jobs. 

They work long hours in meat-packing plants and warehouses, or tending to elderly people in long-term care homes — low-paying jobs that are difficult to fill.

But they may not be able to stay in Canada when deportations, which have nearly ground to a halt during the COVID-19 crisis, resume.

No indication governments will listen

Despite growing calls from community organizers, advocates and opposition politicians in both Quebec and Ottawa for the federal government to create a special program for the asylum seekers, neither Trudeau nor Premier François Legault have indicated they were in favour of doing so. 

In an emailed statement Saturday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said "front-line health-care workers play a critical role in keeping Canadians healthy. We're all deeply grateful for their dedication, commitment and bravery."

But that "all eligible asylum claimants receive a full and fair hearing on the individual merits of their claim."

Alexandre Boulerice, NDP MP for Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, was at the demonstration.

"They are literally giving their lives to take care of our seniors," Boulerice said. "The least we can do is to provide them security, with status so they can stay here because they work for the common good of our society."

Demonstrators, keeping a safe distance between them, gathered at prime minister's riding office Saturday morning. Some people stayed in their cars. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

Boulerice has helped spearhead a petition on behalf of a Montreal community group that calls on Trudeau to "show leadership by implementing a special program to regularize the status of asylum seekers working to fight COVID-19."

Boulerice said he was disappointed by how the Quebec government has so far responded to the issue. 

When Legault was asked about it Thursday, he said of the asylum seekers, "we need them, we are lucky to have them," but that "there are some rules [to follow] for the people who'd like to become immigrants."

Frantz André, one of the founders of the Action Committee for People without Status, an advocacy group that helps asylum seekers settle in Montreal, helped organize the protest.

He says there is no point in directing pressure to the provincial government because it ran on a campaign to reduce immigration numbers in Quebec.

"We're asking for permanent residency; I think Mr. Trudeau has that moral and human opportunity to make sure that we are welcome here."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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