MONTREAL — After demanding for months that Ottawa stop the flow of migrants into the country, Quebec's premier is making his pitch to English Canada for the closure of an irregular border crossing popular with asylum seekers — and for their transfer outside his province.
The number of would-be refugees entering Quebec "has exploded," François Legault wrote in an English-language letter published Tuesday in the Globe and Mail, adding that refugee claimants are pushing the province's social services to their limits. The sooner the federal government closes the Roxham Road irregular border crossing in southern Quebec, the better, the premier said.
"This situation even raises several humanitarian considerations, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to receive asylum seekers with dignity," Legault said.
The letter is similar to the one Legault wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday. But unlike the letter to Trudeau, Legault's message in the Globe does not include concerns that the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers is putting the survival of the French language in Montreal at risk. The premier also doesn't mention that he's asked Trudeau for more money to pay for the costs of caring for would-be refugees.
"We have therefore asked the federal government to settle new asylum seekers in other provinces that are capable of supporting them with dignity," Legault wrote in the Globe. The letter called for Ottawa to transfer to other provinces all new asylum seekers who enter irregularly, "while Quebec catches its breath." Ottawa should issue work permits and process refugee applications faster, he added.
"In the meantime, Mr. Trudeau's government should send the message loud and clear to would-be migrants not to come via Roxham Road anymore."
For months, the Legault government has been calling on Ottawa to close Roxham Road and to transfer asylum seekers to other provinces. The influx of would-be refugees in Quebec has put significant strain on the housing, education and social services sectors, the government says.
Later in the day, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre responded to Legault's letters and called on Trudeau to create a plan to end the crossings at Roxham Road within a month.
"The job of protecting our borders belongs to us, and in particular to the prime minister of Canada," he told reporters in Ottawa. "And under his leadership, the number of illegal border crossings has gone up tenfold.
"We as a country can close that border crossing. If we are a real country, we have borders."
Poilievre did not say how this could be done, but noted that Roxham Road crossings largely stopped at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — but he did not mention that the border itself was almost entirely closed.
The opposition leader argued that ending these crossings would save money that could diverted to processing asylum claims made by people who did not illegally cross into Canada.
Poilievre, however, would not say whether he supports transferring asylum claimants from Quebec to other provinces.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement signed by Washington and Ottawa in 2002, most asylum seekers cannot make claims at official border crossings between the two countries. But the agreement doesn’t apply to people who illegally cross into Canada outside of a border station, most of whom are not prosecuted because they file an asylum claim.
In the past, Conservative MPs have floated extending the Third Country Agreement to apply to anyone who reaches Canada, though that would require Washington’s approval and likely violates international rules.
Poilievre rejected those arguments as excuses for Trudeau letting the problem fester.
In his letters, Legault also called for the Safe Third Country Agreement — which is currently being renegotiated — to apply at all points of entry, both official and unofficial.
According to federal government statistics, more than 39,000 people claimed asylum in Quebec in 2022 after crossing into Canada outside official ports of entry, mostly through Roxham Road. About 369 people who crossed irregularly over that period claimed asylum in the rest of the country. In total, around 64 per cent of all asylum claims in Canada in 2022 were made in Quebec.
In response to Legault's letter to Trudeau, the office of federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Monday that Ottawa had transferred thousands of migrants to Ontario to take pressure off Quebec, adding that the government was working with other provinces and municipalities to find other temporary accommodations.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2023.
- With files from Dylan Robertson.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press