Municipality Rightfully Seeks Equitable Asylum Assistance

Op/Ed by Jason Setnyk
Municipality Rightfully Seeks Equitable Asylum Assistance

The City of Cornwall is facing an unprecedented challenge. In the past two years alone, the city has welcomed 1,879 asylum claimants, accounting for approximately 2% of its population. This figure has doubled in the last 18 months, surpassing the per capita intake of asylum claimants in other major cities in Ontario, including Toronto. Despite this, according to a city release (shared on Feb 27, 2024), Cornwall has been left to shoulder the financial burden largely on its own, with private requests for assistance to the federal and provincial governments in November and December, respectively, yielding no tangible action.

The financial strain on Cornwall is evident. The city’s Ontario Works caseload has surged by as much as 31% in some months since August 2022. Unlike larger cities, Cornwall is currently ineligible to apply for certain funds made available to address asylum claimants’ housing needs. The city’s financial impacts now total well over $1 million, affecting various sectors, including Housing, Children’s Services, Ontario Works, Transit, Emergency Services, and Tourism. The occupancy of hotel rooms by contracts with the federal government further exacerbates the situation by reducing Municipal Accommodation Tax revenue, hindering Cornwall Tourism’s ability to promote the city and welcome visitors.

Mayor Justin Towndale’s statement in the release underscores the gravity of the situation: “For well over a year, Cornwall has been welcoming asylum claimants, providing a new, safe beginning for those who need it the most. However, the Federal Government continues to ignore our repeated requests for assistance with the ever-growing costs that the city is shouldering.”

I agree with Mayor Towndale’s argument that the government needs to step up and provide Cornwall with the necessary financial assistance to support the influx of asylum claimants. The city has proudly welcomed these individuals, offering them a safe and new beginning. However, the burden of the associated costs has been disproportionately borne by the municipality.

Next, as highlighted by Chief Administrative Officer Mathieu Fleury, the federal government’s commitments to the province of Quebec and the City of Toronto stand in stark contrast to the lack of support provided to Cornwall. The city’s intake of asylum claimants has significantly strained its budget, services, and staff, warranting the request for a fair share of financial assistance.

Mellissa Morgan, General Manager of Human Services, aptly points out the dilemma faced by Cornwall residents: “Housing and the cost of other daily necessities are top of mind for all Cornwall residents these days. Money is tight for all households. We want to be there for newcomers. But we also need to give voice to growing concerns that we would raise municipal taxes to pay for services for which we are not being adequately funded and which are, frankly, other governments’ areas of responsibility.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Morgan’s argument that while Cornwall is committed to supporting newcomers, there is a pressing need for adequate funding to avoid placing an undue burden on local taxpayers. The rising costs of daily necessities are a concern for all residents, and it is unjust to expect the community to shoulder the financial responsibility for services that fall within the purview of federal and provincial governments. Providing for asylum claimants is a noble endeavor, but it should not come at the expense of local taxpayers or compromise the city’s ability to provide essential services.

The City of Cornwall’s unprecedented public request for fair support and additional dollars from the federal and provincial governments is justified and necessary. The city has played an outsized but proud role in welcoming asylum claimants, and it is time for the federal and provincial governments to step up and provide the financial support needed.

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