By TOM GODFREY
Some 160 agencies from across Canada have banded together to lobby Ottawa for changes to an omnibus Bill C-43 that is under study and if passed will limit social assistance benefits for refugee claimants.
The groups have sent an Open Letter to Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, asking him to oppose parts of Bill C-43 that will impose minimum residency requirements for eligibility for social assistance benefits for certain categories of people based on their immigration status.
They fear refugee claimants and others without permanent status could be denied access to welfare benefits, which is an important source of income for them when they first arrive in Canada.
The Bill, which is being studied by a Standing Committee, includes a provision that would amend the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements to allow the provinces to impose minimum residency requirements for eligibility for benefits.
Called the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act, the Bill was introduced in 2012 and proposes changes to immigration laws relating to the investigation and removal of foreigners who have run afoul of the law.
The law, if passed, will mean arriving refugee claimants will not be eligible for welfare payments in Ontario because they have not lived in the province. A single person is entitled to about $650 monthly in social assistance benefits.
Jennefer Laidley, of the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), said the Tories are trying to have Bill C-43 become law by the end of the year. It will then be up to the provinces to carry out the legislation.
“Denying refugee claimants access to a source of income that they need to survive is not how we should welcome people who are fleeing persecution,” Laidley told Share. “People will be left in a lurch with no income.”
Laidley said the issue is a concern for many refugee, aid and church groups across Canada.
“The amendments are an abdication of federal responsibility to refugee claimants and to the last remaining national standard in social program provision,” she said.
Laidley said allowing provinces to impose residency requirements erodes the last remaining national standard in the Canada Social Transfer, which is the primary source of federal funding to support provincial and territorial social programs.
“That 160 organizations would come together demonstrates the depth of concern across the country that the government’s move will have on refugee claimants when they arrive in Canada,” she said.
The Open Letter warned officials that C-43 would allow provinces to restrict access to social assistance benefits for refugee claimants and others without status in Canada.
“A Federal Court recently described your government’s denial of healthcare to refugee claimants as cruel and unusual,” the letter said. “It is disturbing to see another initiative using legislation to threaten the well-being of migrants attempting to navigate Canada’s immigration system.”
The letter warned about the “tremendous stress and burden” families face when seeking refugee status in Canada.
It said the stress can make finding and holding a job difficult without appropriate health care.
“Work permits take time to be approved and issued, which leaves people with no source of income for months on end,” the agencies said. “In the interim, access to social assistance is vital to sustain and rebuild lives.”
The letter stated that without the support, many families would be unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves and that will place pressure on overburdened charities and shelters.
Over 1,700 people have signed an online petition calling for the Bill to be amended.
Toronto health care worker, Ritika Goel, said social assistance is a crucial lifeline for newcomers to Canada.
“Taking it away would be cruel and unusual,” Goel wrote in the petition.
Sarah Draper, of Guelph, said social assistance is for everyone in need.
“They came to Canada for refuge and we cannot let them languish in poverty and never have a fair chance to get on their feet,” she said.