LEGAL AID IS IN JEOPARDY, ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE A REFUGEE CLAIMANT

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Thursday, June 20, marks World Refugee Day. There’s not a lot of cause for celebrating these days, but the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre (CRWC) is doing exactly that by holding a party in its parking lot. 

The CRWC is located across from Christie Pits, between Bloor and Barton, with 76 beds for refugee families, where they can stay for up to 120 days. (Another refugee-focused shelter, Sojourn House, east of Sherbourne and south of Queen, is for singles and couples.) 

You don’t have to be a right-wing fanatic to question why refugees would want to come to Toronto, a city where middle-class families are being pushed out to more affordable centres like Hamilton and much further beyond. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the rental vacancy rate in Toronto is the second-lowest in the country (1.1 per cent), after Vancouver (1 per cent). The national average is 2.4 per cent.

CRWC executive director Sam Chaise has heard this before: how does a grossly overheated housing market like Toronto’s handle refugees at all? “By the time people get to Toronto,” he says, “they’ve heard through the grapevine that this is where they should go because of all the different communities here, but they haven’t heard how expensive the housing is until they get here. We have four staff in housing support, coaching them as they look for housing, and then the first six months they have support to help them get stabilized. We’re finding they are moving further out.”

Some clients move to Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton and beyond; some move to smaller communities with fewer support services and end up back in Toronto, where there is at least an existing ethnic community to help ease the transition into Canadian life. The CRWC services many East African refugees; the many businesses nearby, along Bloor east of Koreatown – places like the 29-years-running Lalibela restaurant, west of Roxton, or the Freta Injera grocery, just east of Shaw – suggest the neighbourhood is in some ways more familiar than, say, Uxbridge. CRWC clients are claimant refugees: not sponsored by government or private citizens, but those who arrived at airports or borders or on a student visa. They’re the ones least likely to have anyone rooting for them here. 

Which is why Chaise and others on the front line were devastated when news came in April that the Ontario government is making a $30-million cut to Legal Aid Ontario, specifically the elimination of funds earmarked for refugee services. (Refugee cases account for approximately 10 per cent of Legal Aid Ontario’s budget, and, as outlined earlier in this space, that’s catastrophic for nearby Parkdale Community Legal Services.) “I can’t imagine this being the new normal for the next five years,” says Chaise. “That would be insane.”

By now it’s painfully obvious that Doug Ford picks on the most vulnerable in Ontario society: midwives, educators [do these fit in list of most vulnerable?] Indigenous people, the mentally ill, library users, beneficiaries of public health programs, endangered species, musicians – hell, even trees. But is there any population more vulnerable than refugees?

“I have no problem with refugees,” Ford told AM640’s Alan Carter on the air last month. “I don’t blame these folks. I’d be doing the same if I lived in a country that wasn’t providing a lifestyle for myself and my family. I get it. But you can’t jump a line.”

His solution is to reserve the privilege of lining up only to those who can independently fund their own legal counsel. And for all the right-wing hand-wringing about “illegal” border-crossings – which the Liberals targeted aggressively in the latest budget omnibus bill, by not hearing refugee claims from anyone who has also made one in the U.S. – this move could push the process underground if refugees don’t have a reasonable way to engage in the legal process.

What that means in the short term is that there will be no money for refugees’ legal services beyond the initial “basis of claim” (BOC), the document that must be completed within 15 days of arriving in the country. (Because a small part of legal aid is covered by the federal government, there will still be enough money for every refugee to file a BOC, which requires approximately eight hours of legal work.) The BOC is incredibly important: It’s where a refugee has to get every tiny detail of their story straight, because if their memory kicks in later or any evidence surfaces to contradict the initial BOC, red flags will be raised and the rest of their road to citizenship will be rockier. And that’s a long and winding road: The average case takes between 18 months and two years. That’s two years during which a refugee will either have to represent themselves in a legal system they’re likely to know very little about, or hire a lawyer. As any non-refugee will tell you, that’s not cheap. 

Anyone who has already filed a BOC in the system will continue to be covered by legal aid as their case winds its way through the system. That’s the (relatively) good news.

The bad news is that future access to legal aid will not be there for those who need it the most: those who arrive here destitute and require help navigating a legal system they don’t understand, in a language they don’t understand, in order to avoid being shipped back to whatever circumstances they fled.

“Right now there are dark days ahead for refugees and migrants,” says Parkdale MPP Bhutila Karpoche, herself a Tibetan refugee. “We’re fielding attacks from all sides, not just the legal aid cuts, but also in the federal budget, where they’re now denying proper process to asylum seekers. Governments are using refugees and migrants as pawns to score political points, which is a real shame.” She’s not looking forward to the rhetoric ratcheting up in this year’s federal election. 

Chaise’s focus, meanwhile, is on the needs of the refugees walking through the CRWC’s doors today. He sighs as he begins to recount an analogy he’s obviously used many times before. “It’s the middle of the night and you hear someone banging on your door, and you look through your door and it’s a young mom with a baby, and she says, ‘Help me, I’m in trouble.’ You have three choices: You invite her in and she lives with you – I don’t think any of us would actually do that. Or, number two, you say, ‘No, go away.’ Not many of us would do that, either. Probably most of us would do number three: Open the door and say, ‘What’s going on?’ You do an in-the-moment assessment, listen to her story and maybe she’d sleep at your place for a night. I’d bet 90 per cent of us would do that. That’s what the refugee claims system is about: opening the door, not guaranteeing they can live here yet, but recognizing that they’re scared and we should hear their story and figure it out.”

The street party Chaise and his team are throwing on June 20 gives the community a chance to learn those stories, to break some bread, to dance together. Because even when the coming days look dark, it’s important to celebrate what we still have today. While we can.

This ongoing online column will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at michael@westendphoenix.com.