“Ordinary human decency demands that Canada and Manitoba should feed and shelter them. Caution dictates that we should find out all we can about their history and their motives. Self-interest should urge us to respond to their ingenuity and the intensity of their desire to live here.”
So wrote the Winnipeg Free Press in an editorial on people crossing the border at Emerson, Manitoba, seeking asylum in Canada. People desperate to cross the border in -30 temperatures have suffered frostbite and lost fingers. On February 25, I travelled to Emerson to get an unfiltered understanding of what was happening on the ground, and how people are being affected. I know the area well – I grew up in Vita, Manitoba just a 40 minute drive east of Emerson.
I travelled with Rita Chahal of Winnipeg’s Welcome Place, part of the Manitoba Interfaith Council, which is Manitoba’s largest refugee resettlement agency. They have been shuttling back and forth between Winnipeg and Emerson on a daily basis. The increase in crossings has placed demands on every level of government – federal border officers, provincial health, and municipal services, both in Emerson and in Winnipeg, where the asylum-seekers end up.
One of the basic difficulties in Emerson is that until recently, there was no place for asylum-seekers to rest. Some people crossing the border have walked all night, some with children.
The Federal Government has brought in a trailer for people to rest, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has promised an initial $30,000 for the community, with more if needed. Welcome Place has played an incredible role in this process. They have been driving to the border daily to Winnipeg, and have faced challenges because of increased costs, of transport, food and logistics.
The community in Winnipeg has stepped up in a big way – the Salvation Army has provided a whole floor for asylum-seekers. I am proud at the way Manitobans and Winnipeggers have shown themselves to be welcoming, but it also shows just how many people and services are affected. Caring for asylum-seekers doesnt mean we are taking away from anyone else – but we have to make sure there are adequate spaces for our homeless as well.
For people living in Emerson, the reaction has been mixed, which is understandable. People told me that in days past, the only people slipping across the border were criminals. Today, it’s people looking for safety – but a knock on the door late at night isn’t something anyone welcomes.
But people I spoke to also said they enjoyed having asylum-seekers eat at the local restaurants, and that it was the most excitement in years. Some have suggested that, as the weather warms up, the number of asylum seekers will go up. We are monitoring the situation carefully.
There’s no knowing exactly what will happen, but we need to be prepared for that contingency – as well as for the impact of a possible Red River flood – this is Manitoba, after all. There have been predictions of a possible flood this year, because the ground was already saturated before winter.
Depending on the melt, a Red River flood could push people away from Emerson. The challenge of a sandbagging for a flood at the same time as handling asylum-seekers would be significant.
I am very grateful for the hospitality showed to me on my visit, and the great work that everyone has been doing to deal with these challenges. As Manitobans do, we will pull together. The Federal Government has been on the ground evaluating the situation and we will be ready to be called on when needed.