News Local

Garrison Petawawa soldiers sent to Cornwall to build tent city for asylum seekers

By Alan S. Hale, Cornwall Standard-Freeholder

Members of the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group from Garrison Petawawa erect enough tents to house 500 asylum seekers in addition to the room for 300 inside Cornwall's Nav Centre on Friday, Aug 18.

Members of the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group from Garrison Petawawa erect enough tents to house 500 asylum seekers in addition to the room for 300 inside Cornwall's Nav Centre on Friday, Aug 18.

CORNWALL – Within hours of Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announcing they were coming, asylum seekers began arriving at arriving at the Nav Centre on Thursday evening where they are going to be housed until their claims can be processed.

By Friday afternoon there were 245 asylum seekers, most of whom are Haitians, at the complex, with more arriving throughout the day from Montreal on Government of Canada-branded buses. But there is a possibility that there could be up to 900 of them in Cornwall at once.

All of the asylum seekers arriving on Thursday and Friday are being put up inside the barracks-like residences inside the Nav Centre. The complex currently has space for 300 people, but according to Cornwall chief administrative officer Maureen Adams, there could be an additional 500 to 600 people brought to Cornwall if required.

"The cap for Cornwall is no more than 900. So there could be enough room in the Nav Centre for up to 400 people within the Nav Centre at certain times, and then there might be available for another 500 through the interim lodging site," explained Adams.

That interim lodging site is a tent city which was constructed in a field on the northern end of the Nav Centre's property on Friday.

About 75 soldiers from the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group were sent to Cornwall from Garrison Petawawa and spent the day erecting 50 modular tents, which are capable of housing 500 people outside the Nav Centre building.

All the tents will also be hooked up with electric light and heating, according to the brigade's public relations officer Lieut. Karyn Mazurek.

"This is basically a secondary site that we've been asked to set up," explained the lieutenant. "We're also setting up the power, lighting, heating, and also co-ordinating with the other government departments on things such as feeding and other basic needs such as toilets and water."

The goal will be to keep as many people inside the rooms at the Nav, said Mazurek, so people will be moved out of the tents as rooms in the building free up.

Most of the asylum seekers visible on the grounds and lobby of the Nav Centre were young to middle-aged adults, with a greater number of men than women. There were also a few families and women with children ranging in age from toddlers to teens. The Cornwall Standard-Freeholder approached several people asking about their decision to seek asylum in Canada, but all of them declined to share their stories. One man explained that they had all been advised not to talk to the media.

The mostly Francophone asylum seekers were spending their first afternoon in Cornwall exploring the labyrinthine interior of the Nav Centre's campus, sitting at tables outside talking on cellphones, and a few even began heading into downtown Cornwall for some shopping. Public Safety Canada confirmed on Friday that the people at the Nav Centre are free to come and go as they wish.

"As the CBSA has conducted all required security screening and determined that these individuals are admissible to Canada, they are not being detained," said spokesman Jean-Philippe Levert.

Although the military presence at the Nav Centre has been vastly increased, Lieut. Mazurek said soldiers are not there for security purposes and that the RCMP been given that task.

Local RCMP spokesman Const. Jean Juneau, however, confirmed there is no RCMP presence currently at the Nav Centre because the people there have already passed their security screening.

Asylum seekers will be housed in Cornwall while they wait to see if there are eligible for a hearing in front of an Immigration and Refugee Board. The Public Safety ministry said the length of this process can change depending on individual circumstances. Adams believes it is likely Cornwall would continue to receive more people as cases are resolved.

"What is likely to happen is that as these individuals are processed for their immigration applications, then they will likely leave this location and there will become room for more," she said.

One question that has not been answered is how long Cornwall could be receiving asylum seekers.

The number of people crossing illegally into Canada from the United States in order to seek asylum has been skyrocketing this summer. In June 780 people crossed the border, which became almost 3,000 in July, and with August not even over there have already been 3,800 crossings this month. Those numbers overwhelmed facilities in the Montreal area, which caused the government to begin sending the asylum seekers to Cornwall. But Public Safety Canada skirted around the issue when asked if asylums seekers would continue to be sent to Cornwall.

"The Government of Canada is working closely and is in constant contact with the Province of Quebec as well as with other government and non-government organizations, to ensure the support provided is as effective and efficient as possible," said Levert.

ahale@postmedia.com

twitter.com/alan_S_hale