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Federal government points finger at Ontario over refugee welfare reform

The Ontario government has denied a suggestion by Ottawa that the province brought up the idea of imposing minimum residency requirement to restrict refugee access to government assistance.

On Thursday, a senior federal immigration director told a Senate committee that the idea — currently embedded in an omnibus budgetary bill C-43 — “came up” during conversations with Ontario officials over the province’s policy responses to Ottawa’s refugee reforms.

“We had a number of conversations with the Government of Ontario where we were looking at the very generous benefits Canada provided to asylum claimants in the past, when we’re trying to identify what adjustments we should be making in order to discourage inappropriate asylum claims,” said Mark Davidson, the immigration department’s director general in international and intergovernmental relations.

“During that conversation, the Province of Ontario actually reminded us that there’s a provision in the federal law that limits the ability of provincial governments to make this policy choice in their own jurisdiction.”

When pushed by Toronto Senator Art Eggleton if Ontario asked for the change, Davidson replied, “I wouldn’t say the Government of Ontario has specifically asked for this but certain it’s come up in the conversation we had with them in the recent past.”

However, a spokesperson for Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek immediately refuted the claim.

“The government of Ontario has not requested the ability to impose residency restrictions and we were not consulted on this legislation,” said Amber Anderson.

“In fact, the Ministry of Community and Social Services has concerns about the potential human rights implications of imposing a waiting period for a specific group. We believe that a waiting period could impact people with legitimate refugee claims who are truly in need. We have communicated our concerns to the federal government.”

Critics and advocacy groups said the province’s response confirms that the proposed changes were undertaken by the Conservative government with little consultation.

“This first went forward as a private member’s bill (C585) that essentially flew under the radar until we learned of it a couple of months ago. We had suspected this was actually a government-backed bill and not a true private member’s bill,” said Jennefer Laidley of Toronto’s Income Security Advocacy Centre.

“That was confirmed when the provisions were included in the government’s omnibus budget bill. Now, Ontario has confirmed it did not initiate it.”

Bill C43 will go before the parliamentary finance and immigration committees on Nov. 18 and 19, and return to the House of Commons for a final vote as soon as the end of the month.

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