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Toronto to ask federal defence minister to open armouries to shelter refugee claimants

Olivia Chow.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow told council on Wednesday: 'We need the federal government to step up.' (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Photo:  (Alex Lupul/CBC)


Spokesperson for Mayor Olivia Chow says letter to be sent on Thursday

Toronto city council will ask the federal government in a letter on Thursday to open its armouries immediately for use as emergency shelters for refugee claimants as winter approaches.

The letter, signed by Mayor Olivia Chow and a majority of councillors, is addressed to National Defence Minister Bill Blair. The federal properties in Toronto, used by the Canadian military, include Moss Park, Fort York and Denison Armouries.

Together, we are calling on you as Minister of National Defence to immediately open and operationalize the federal armouries in Toronto, to provide emergency indoor accommodation for refugee claimants this winter, the letter reads.

Arianne Robinson, spokesperson for Chow, said on Wednesday that the letter will be sent at the end of the day on Thursday.

The letter says Toronto is providing shelter to about 4,800 refugees but its municipal shelter system is not designed to provide housing for refugee claimants.

It is the responsibility of the federal government to support people who have been forced to flee their homes and have arrived in Canada looking to build a new life.

Chow has previously said Toronto needs federal help to address the growing numbers of refugees in its emergency shelter system, to build more affordable housing and to fund public transit projects. The mayor met with Canada's finance minister for the first time in Toronto in late September to address the city's $1.5-billion budget deficit. 

While both called the meeting positive, Finance MInister Chrystia Freeland said at the time the federal government's own fiscal position is "constrained."  (new window)

The letter says the city is in a period of exceptional need, with more than 9,000 people staying its emergency shelter system nightly, an increase from 6,000 in 2021. It says 40 per cent of people in its shelters are refugee claimants, and each night, 100 are turned away from shelters due to lack of space.

These are people who desperately need a place to go that is warm and safe, where they can have access to the supports they need, the letter says.

The Department of National Defence has not yet commented. This story will be updated if it provides a response.

The letter says Toronto's executive committee was recently told that the number of people seeking asylum in Canada is expected to increase in the coming months.

On Oct. 31, Rema Jamous Imseis, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative to Canada, spoke to the committee, saying it is important for the city to forecast trends and to prepare for refugee claimants.

Desperate people will always find a way to move, she told the committee.

She urged the city to establish a reception centre for refugee claimants.

House them under one roof, provide wraparound services and get them on their way, she said.

The total number of claims in Canada from January to September 2023 was 96,450, a number 1.5 times higher than the same period in 2022. She said if the trend continues, Canada could receive nearly 140,000 claims this year, 50,000 more than last year, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Canada's asylum system was not built for these numbers, she said.

Refugee claimants 'out in the cold,' letter says

In the letter, the city notes that the government has opened Moss Park and Fort York armouries in the past as shelter and respite sites. 

Right now, refugee claimants in our city, many of whom are from African nations, are out in the cold, the letter says. This is the first step in honouring the federal government's commitment to people who have come to Canada seeking safety and support. 

At its meeting on Wednesday, Toronto city council decided to ask the federal government to open and fund emergency accommodation for refugee claimants at federal sites, including the armouries, and to open and fund a regional refugee reception centre.

Council also decided to ask the government to share its plan to reimburse the city for the full cost of supporting refugee claimants in Toronto.

'We need the federal government to step up'

Gord Tanner, general manager of the city's shelter support and housing administration, told council that there are 3,800 refugees in the city's shelter system and 1,700 in hotels and programs run by the Canadian Red Cross.

Added Chow: We need the federal government to step up.

According to the city's Daily Shelter & Overnight Service Usage (new window) webpage, a total of 9.090 people used its shelters on Monday.

According to its Shelter System Requests for Referrals (new window) webpage, an average of 278 people were turned away each night due to lack of space in September. 

Muriel Draaisma (new window) · CBC