Cornwall, Ont., city council demands answers on future of Nav Centre refuge

Cornwall, Ont., residents packed into a special council meeting with hope of learning the fate of more than 290 migrants living at the city's Nav Centre.

Temporary tent city with capacity for 500 expected to remain in place for 2 more months

The interim lodging site prepared by the Canadian Forces, which has beds for 500 people. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Residents of Cornwall, Ont., packed into a special city council meeting Monday evening with hopes of learning more about what is happening with asylum seekers set to move onto the grounds of a sprawling conference centre.

Councillors said they couldn't answer questions about the hastily-built tent city set to house hundreds of people who crossed the Canada-U.S. border illegally through Quebec as they enter the queue for refugee claimants.

Cornwall Mayor Leslie O'Shaughnessy said the public needs accurate information so it can support the project.

"There are mixed feelings within our community on what they think we should be doing," O'Shaughnessy said in the meeting.

Mayor Leslie O'Shaughnessy listens during a meeting with representatives from the federal, provincial and municipal governments about asylum seekers at the Nav Centre. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"We do not want to create a situation where we are dividing, having divisions in our community. The way to do that is to provide proper and clear information in a timely manner." 

O'Shaugnessy highlighted that it wasn't the municipality's decision to house the asylum seekers, and that a majority of residents have expressed positive sentiments about the effort.

Newborn at the Nav Centre

The Nav Centre, an immense training and conference facility on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, is home to about 294 migrants, mostly families originally from Haiti who were screened by the Canadian Border Services Agency.

Commander Bradley Nuttley, Cornwall's co-ordinator of emergency management and community safety, said the asylum seekers are generally in good health.

Commander Bradley Nuttley, Cornwall's manager of emergency management and community services, says the city is supporting the Nav Centre in housing the asylum seekers. (CBC)

"They had good diet, good exercise, access to health care in the past. They come with resources. We're not seeing a large workload there," he said. 

"What we are seeing is, we've already had a new Canadian citizen in the sense that we've had a birth. We do have some pregnant ladies who will be delivering over the next nine months."

Officials said about 40 per cent of the migrants are children.

Canadian Forces members were called in to quickly set-up the camp as the number of asylum seekers from the U.S. spiked. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Questions mount 

Councillors raised questions about who was footing the bill, how long the interim centre would last and how people could contribute if they were eager to help.

The federal government said it is currently accounting for the costs of relocation. The Ontario government has been put in charge of emergency, health and social services. 

There are enough cots on the grounds for 500 people to live relatively comfortably. (Estelle Cote-Sroka/Radio-Canada)

Claimants can stay for one or two weeks as their papers are filed and are then free to go to the province of their preference. With respect to transportation, incoming and outgoing groups are expected to be moved by bus, 50 people at a time. 

Once their claims are before the Immigration and Refugee Board, they can get a work permit, access to health care and enter the school system in the province of their choice. 

The mayor and several councillors called for Ottawa to appoint a lead agency to handle future questions about resettlement, as well as hold a public information meeting. 

'Let's be welcoming!'

More than 80 per cent of asylum claimants are expected to go to Montreal, where they have connections within the city's well-established Haitian community, according to Louis Dumas, who spoke for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada.

The military has deployed 130 soldiers to the Nav Centre to build a tent city with a capacity for 500 people. Despite being equipped to last through the winter, councillors were told the camp is temporary and will likely remain for two more months. 

Cornwall residents packed into council chambers for a special meeting on the response to asylum seekers at the Nav Centre. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Coun. Elaine MacDonald said there should be a free transit pass for Nav Centre residents to encourage them to settle in Cornwall permanently.

"I would love to see Haitians in Cornwall in the long term," she said. "Let us not just be tolerant and accepting, let's be welcoming!"

With files from Amanda Pfeffer