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Federal government offers $5M to help Toronto shelter asylum seekers at Exhibition Place

Canada’s immigration minister says the federal government has offered $5 million to help the City of Toronto open the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place to create spaces for asylum seekers this winter.

“No one should be left outside in dangerously cold weather,” Miller said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Wednesday.

“We have offered $5M to partner with the City of Toronto to open the Better Living Centre at the Exhibition Place to create more safe spaces to keep people out of the cold. This option remains.”

The offer follows a letter from Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow asking the federal government to open its armouries in the city for use as emergency shelters for asylum seekers as winter approaches.

In an email late Wednesday, however, the mayor’s office says the offer from Miller is not good enough. It said it is already working to open the Better Living Centre, as part of its winter services plan, in the coming weeks.

“We need additional space for this crisis,” Arianne Robinson, spokesperson for Chow, said in the email.

In the email, the mayor’s office says the city requires $200 million for 2023 to cover the cost of sheltering about 4,000 refugees currently in the city’s shelter system and $240 million for 2024.

‘The situation is dire,’ mayor says in letter

Chow posted her letter to X, formerly Twitter, earlier on Wednesday, saying refugees occupied 3,900 spaces in the city’s shelter system as of Nov. 13, with an additional 1,212 refugees supported outside of the system. The number is a 50 per cent increase from the number six months ago. 

Chow said the letter, addressed to two federal ministers, Defence Minister Bill Blair and Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan, was also submitted to the provincial government.

Mayor Olivia Chow
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow says in a Nov. 20 letter to two federal cabinet ministers: that the refugee situation in the city is a crisis. ‘The City of Toronto is formally requesting that the Fort York Armoury and Moss Park Armoury are urgently operationalized, resourced, and funded by the federal government to provide shelter for refugee claimants for the duration of the crisis,’ she writes. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“The situation is dire,” Chow says in the letter.

“The City of Toronto is formally requesting that the Fort York Armoury and Moss Park Armoury are urgently operationalized, resourced, and funded by the federal government to provide shelter for refugee claimants for the duration of the crisis.”

Armouries ‘not ideal’ for asylum seekers, minister says

Earlier on Wednesday, however, Miller said the armouries are “not an ideal place” to house asylum seekers who need shelter when they come to Toronto.

And before the federal government would consider opening the armouries, Miller said it would need to get a formal “request for assistance” from the Ontario government and the federal government has not yet received such a request.

Miller told reporters that the government has been looking at a number of options in the Greater Toronto Area, including Exhibition Place, to ease the pressure of asylum seekers on Toronto’s shelter system. He said the other options, including Exhibition Place, would be a “more suitable” place for people to get shelter.

“We have a good relationship with the mayor’s office and want to continue to do so. But again the priority is to focus on these people that aren’t housed under the proper conditions,” he said.

Asylum seekers from Africa and other locales are seen outside of a shelter intake office at Peter St. and Richmond St. in Toronto, on July 14, 2023.
Asylum seekers are photographed outside of a shelter intake office at Peter Street and Richmond Street in Toronto, on July 14, 2023. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Federal reception centre at Pearson possible: minister

Miller added that the government is “close to having an understanding” with Peel Region and is expected to make an announcement within days about the possibility of a federal reception centre for asylum seekers near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

“That is something that I hope that we can announce in the next couple days,” he said.

“In the case that is accepted, it would be a place where people would be welcomed near the airport so that we have a better fashion and a better way of triaging and making sure that we are having a coordinated regional response to something that isn’t going away quickly, but winter is also coming quickly. There is some immediacy to it.”

The Department of National Defence (DND), meanwhile, said in an Nov. 10 email to CBC Toronto that Moss Park Armoury was damaged in 2018 when it was used as a makeshift homeless shelter.

“One hundred shelter beds were provided at Moss Park Armoury in January 2018 for three weeks, and yes the facilities were damaged,” Andrée-Anne Poulin, media relations for DND, said in the email.

“The facilities are still undergoing repair, therefore the final costs are not available.”

Poulin said the city of Toronto paid $30,000 for contracted-out expenses such as cleaning and security.

She said Toronto’s three armouries, Fort York, Moss Park and Denison, house 10 army reserve units and serve as headquarters for the training of Canadian Army soldiers for domestic and international operations. They are also used to support the Canadian Armed Forces cadet program for young people aged 12 to 18.

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