Montreal’s Olympic Stadium becomes shelter as Haitian refugees seek home in Canada
Many of the new asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. are Haitians that dream of a more secure welcome in Canada.
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MONTREAL—Groups of men and women walk toward the metal security barrier outside the stadium, shielding their faces from media cameras with their hands or T-shirts. Others pass by dragging suitcases, carrying babies. Still more exit crowded buses, squinting through the sunshine at the underbelly of the giant stadium.
Fleeing danger, fleeing poverty, fleeing anxieties of America and the dead end of their hopes there — all to wind up at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, sleeping on cots in a structure that looks like a concrete spaceship. Thanks to an attention-grabbing government decision this week, the centrepiece of the ’76 Summer Games has become the first Canadian home for scores of asylum seekers with origins in Haiti, Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico and elsewhere who’ve come here to try to start a new life.
Inancien Milien appeared overwhelmed as he tried to explain what it feels like. He was brought to the stadium Wednesday after walking into Canada at the Lacolle border crossing, south of Montreal. Originally from Haiti, he said he lived in the U.S. for 17 years before he decided to join the surge of his compatriots entering Canada.
Like many others, Milien said he was propelled by the disquiet of immigration policy under President Donald Trump. There is also a distinct impression, held by many asylum seekers, that Canada, with its refugee-hugging prime minister, will be a more welcoming place.
“It’s a dream. This is what we are looking for,” said Milien, who was leaving the stadium with two other men to meet a refugee lawyer in the city.
“I have no anxieties since I’ve arrived here in Canada.”
That contrast between the U.S. and Canada, in perception and reality, has been a central theme in the ongoing saga of asylum seekers who are breaking the law by walking across the border into this country. Quebec has borne the brunt of their arrival; according to federal government figures for the first half of the year, 3,350 of the 4,345 people intercepted by RCMP as they crossed into Canada were in Quebec.
In recent weeks there has been a surge of hundreds more. The agency that supports these asylum claimants in Quebec, PRAIDA, took on 1,674 new people in July — more than double the number in June. And on Thursday, Quebec’s immigration minister said the number of asylum seekers entering the province tripled to 150 from 50 a day last month.
PRAIDA said many of the people arriving recently are from Haiti, which again has drawn attention to Trump. In May, the White House announced it would lift an Obama-era policy that prevented Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S. from being deported to their home country. An estimated 40,000 people could be affected when this policy expires in January, prompting some to seek safe haven in Canada.
Shelters in Montreal reached their capacity in July, hence the need for the Olympic Stadium. Mayor Denis Coderre told reporters Thursday they’re working to make sure there are 600 beds in the Olympic Stadium, though as of Friday afternoon 132 people were staying there, said PRAIDA spokesperson Emmanuelle Paciullo.
The situation has fuelled continued calls from refugee advocate groups — as well as the federal NDP — to suspend the Safe Third Country agreement. The accord says asylum seekers arriving in Canada or the U.S. must claim refuge in the first country in which they land, but a loophole exists that critics of the agreement say encourages people to take desperate measures by walking into the country: the agreement doesn’t apply to people who “cross irregularly” by avoiding border posts.
But for people from Haiti trying to avoid deportation in the U.S., Canada isn’t a sure bet either. Last summer, Ottawa lifted its own order that allowed asylum seekers from Haiti who would otherwise be deported to stay because of poor conditions and potential danger in that country.
In an email Friday, Hursh Jaswal, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, said that the deportation suspension for Haitians was briefly reinstated last fall after a hurricane, but the government now treats asylum seekers from the country the same as any other.
However, he said deportation orders can be appealed and that “the decision to remove anyone from Canada is not taken lightly.”
It was all just wind to Frantz Eustache Saint Jean. The 30-year-old walked into Canada at the Lacolle crossing with his pregnant wife last weekend. He shrugged as he explained how the police officers at the border patted down his wife and him, searched their belongings and brought them to an inspection station for processing.
After spending three months in the U.S., he said he was relieved to be in Montreal and felt confident that he would be able to stay. It’s just too dangerous in Haiti, he said, where his wife was “extremely persecuted.”
He didn’t want to elaborate.
“I’d prefer to keep silent,” he said. “There is a crisis in that country.”
Moments later, Thelyson Orelien ambled down a concrete ramp to the entrance of the Olympic Stadium. At 29, the blogger and library worker said he came to Canada from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which killed an estimated 160,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more sick, injured and homeless.
He was among several people who came to the stadium to help. He’d just spent the morning with one of its new denizens, helping him convert money into Canadian currency and figure out how to navigate Montreal’s bus system.
“It’s certain that there are many who will be returned (to Haiti),” Orelien said, arguing that the U.S. is no longer respecting international law and Canada should accept people fleeing that country.
“There are people who have already built a life in the United States, who have bought a house, who work there, who already have a family . . . . Should those people have to sell everything, to cancel everything?”
As he spoke, three others approached the stadium — Montrealers from the local Haitian community who’d heard news stories about what was happening. Among them was Célienne François, who was pushing her daughter, Oriana, in a stroller.
“I know there are young mothers inside,” she said. “It touches my heart because, these are children here, (and) they have to start again at zero.
“If I can volunteer, or give some food, or give them a roof over their heads — whatever to help. I felt they are my compatriots.”
Meanwhile, in Montreal’s north end, Marjorie Villefrance was also busy trying to figure out how to support these newcomers. As executive director of the city’s Maison d’Haïti community centre, she said she’s been alarmed in the past eight weeks — since the U.S. move to change its policy on temporary Haitian residents — to see the rising number of asylum claimants walking into Canada.
“At the beginning it was three, four families per week, then it was 20 per week and now it is 20 per day,” she said, speaking in her office Thursday.
There have been surges like this before, she said, but what makes this one different are the rumours. Social media is abuzz with conversation that Justin Trudeau promised to “welcome everybody” into Canada — a falsehood possibly derived from his much-discussed statement on Twitter, when Trump unveiled his first refugee and immigration restrictions, that Canadians would welcome “those fleeing terror, persecution & war.”
“People are recounting this, so they enter. This is a new phenomenon,” Villefrance said.
To solve the situation for Haitians, she’d like to see the government institute a special program similar to the push to bring in Syrian refugees.
“I see people risking everything to travel, to come here — fleeing from their country,” she said, arguing that Ottawa’s decision to lift the moratorium on Haitian deportation was wrong.
“We can officially say the situation (there) has improved, but that’s not what we’re finding.”
On Friday, Trudeau urged would-be migrants to respect Canada’s border with the U.S.
The prime minister took pains to reassure Canadians that the country has the resources and the capacity to deal with the sudden spike in asylum seekers crossing into Quebec, but he also made it clear that anyone who is caught trying to enter the country illegally would be required to navigate the proper immigration channels.
“We want migration to Canada to be done in an orderly fashion; there’s border checkpoints and border controls that we need to make sure are respected,” Trudeau said at the Glengarry Highland Games in eastern Ontario.
Across town in Montreal, Aristide Joseph leaned on a wooden bench outside a YMCA that is packed with newcomers from Burundi, Brazil, Haiti and elsewhere. Joseph, 40, said he fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and lived in Orlando, Fla., for three years. But he couldn’t find work, and a lawyer there told him he likely wouldn’t get citizenship, so he walked across the border to Canada a few weeks ago, he said.
Like many others on the benches around him, and in the stadium across town, Joseph said he feels better being in Montreal, even though he’s alone. His eyes glazed over with tears as he spoke about his wife, two 14-year-old sons and 7-year-old daughter. They’re still in Haiti, he said.
“There is a lot of trouble and insecurity there,” he said.
One day he hopes to bring them here, to be Canadians together.
With files from The Canadian Press