Hundreds of asylum seekers end up in Cornwall in search of a better life

Hundreds of asylum seekers hoping to start a new life in Canada are beginning the next part of their journey at the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont.

Around 300 people transported to Nav Centre from Quebec at the start of the weekend

Members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons from CFB Petawawa set up tents on the Nav Centre grounds on Aug. 18, 2017. The tents can house upwards of 500 asylum seekers. (CBC News)

Hundreds of asylum seekers hoping to start a new life in Canada are beginning the next part of their journey at the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont.

They're being processed through the federal training complex in the city on the St. Lawrence River after being transferred from overflowing centres in Quebec.

Around 300 claimants, many of whom are originally from Haiti, were at the centre as of Friday afternoon. They were being brought in by white school buses adorned with a Government of Canada logo.

Many of those who were stepping off the buses were families with young children and babies.

'I just don't want to live at risk in the U.S.'

One of those hoping for a better life is Patricia, a 17-year-old who travelled all the way from Houston and crossed the border in New York State with her mother.

CBC has chosen not to use her last name out of concerns for her safety.

Patricia had been living in the U.S. since fleeing Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

I just don't want to live in risk in the U.S. … they're kicking people out.- Patricia, a 17-year-old asylum seeker

But after graduating from high school this spring, she feared being deported back to Haiti and a life that's so different from the one she's been living for the last seven years.

 "I just don't want to live at risk in the U.S. … they're kicking people out," she said.

The temporary protection status for Haitians in the U.S. granted after the earthquake is set to expire in January 2018. The Department of Homeland Security considers Haiti to be a safe country now, and has warned that the U.S. doesn't intend to renew that status — prompting the deluge of asylum seekers crossing into Canada.

"I don't want to take the risk of living there, going to college, and probably some day somebody knocking on my door saying 'Hey you gotta go…. I don't want to risk that,'" Patricia said.

She said her dream is to go to university to become a doctor, not to return somewhere that's a painful reminder of everything her and her mother lost in the earthquake — including family, their home and possessions.

Francois Bonher is an asylum seeker who is staying at the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont. and hopes to be able to relocate to the Montreal area. (CBC News)

Asylum seeker relieved to be in Cornwall

Francois Bonher, another asylum seeker who arrived at the centre from Quebec on Thursday, expressed relief at being able to stay in Cornwall for the time being.

"I'm comfortable," he said. "Canada, that's the best country."

Bonher said he doesn't know where he might end up, but he's hoping for somewhere around Montreal.

Overall, he said he's been happy with the warm reception he's received since crossing the border.

"Everything is the best. No matter what, the police and the people say 'Hi, good morning!' every time."

800 could be housed at building and in tents

The Nav Centre is expecting to house upwards of 800 people, said Barre Campbell, a spokesman with Canada Border Services Agency.

The centre is making around 300 rooms available, while members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons from CFB Petawawa were setting up tents on the grounds of the centre Friday.

Special council meeting planned

Bernadette Clément, a Cornwall city councillor, met with some of the asylum seekers Friday on behalf of the city council to "wish them welcome."

Our role is to make sure the residents here in Cornwall have all the information possible.- Coun. Bernadette Clément

"We want to be respectful, especially, in terms of supporting them through this process, this waiting period," Clément said Saturday.

Clément said there would be a special council meeting Monday night — one that would likely be attended by the city's chief of emergency management — so that residents could stay abreast of the situation.

"Our role is to make sure the residents here in Cornwall have all the information possible, so that they know what's happening, they know what the timelines are, they know exactly what the city [and] the other levels of government are going to be doing," she said.

Some of the newly-arrived are already trying to find schools, churches and health services, Clément added.

Representatives from the French Canadian Association of Ontario in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry also showed up to welcome the asylum seekers, many of whom are francophones.

"This is an opportunity for Cornwall to say that we are a welcoming community, and that we would like to have francophones from other countries come here," said secretary-treasurer Dianne Poirier in a French-language interview Saturday with Radio-Canada.

Porta-potties and showers being set up

The 50 tents could house 500 asylum seekers and are expected to be ready by the middle of next week. They still need raised flooring and generators for portable lights.

"It's not a detention centre ... it's a processing site," said Lt. Karyn Mazurek with the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group out of CFB Petawawa.

Around 100 Canadian Forces personnel were called in by Public Safety Canada to assist in providing added infrastructure for the site, she said.

Porta-potties and showers will also be installed.

The Cornwall facility is meant to ease the burden of asylum seekers that have been crossing illegally into Quebec. The RCMP announced Thursday that 3,800 migrants had crossed illegally into Quebec since Aug. 1.

A little more than 50 per cent of refugees are accepted into Canada, according to Gordon Campbell, an immigration lawyer with the firm Aubrey Campbell McLean in Cornwall.

With files from Judy Trinh and Jean-Sébastien Marier