Ontario legal aid cuts will harm refugees

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LGBTQ refugee claimants take part in the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto's peer support group meeting, where they learn about available community services, receive an orientation about the city, and meet other refugees or claimants. Photo: Courtesy of MCC.

When Helmer Pereira first heard in April that the Ford government had cut the budget of Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) by 30 per cent -- or $133 million -- and prohibited the agency from using provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases, the first thing that came to his mind was, "Please, may God touch the hearts of these people."

And he remembered his own family's story of arriving in Toronto as refugees. "I cannot, I really do not want to, imagine what would have happened to my family if we had not had access to legal aid."

He thought about those "who are suffering all over the world and have Canada as one of the safest places in the world to raise their children and rebuild their torn lives."

Originally from Angola, engineers Helmer and Carla Pereira, along with their three young children, arrived in Toronto and sought refugee status in April 2016. Helmer said he and his family fled to Canada after he was repeatedly threatened over his involvement with an organization focused on transforming Angolan politics.

With help from Romero House -- a charitable agency that provides transitional housing and settlement services for refugee claimants -- the Pereiras applied for legal aid and were able to hire a lawyer.

With their lawyer's guidance, Helmer said, they were able to express their experiences and concerns clearly and accurately to reflect the life-threatening danger their family had faced. The Pereiras are now permanent residents, their children are doing well in school, and Helmer and Carla are back in academia.

Erin Simpson, a Toronto-based lawyer and spokesperson for the Canadian Refugee Lawyers Association, said as a result of the cuts, many refugee claimants are now left to fend for themselves in navigating a complex legal process.

"That's a real problem because the refugee determination process is rigorous," said Simpson. Claimants are required to prepare a detailed narrative and present evidence to support their claim; they undergo exhaustive questioning from the independent tribunal hearing their case, among other things. Often, refugees arrive "traumatized from persecution, some are still physically unwell from torture, and they are without English skills and unfamiliar with our legal system," said Simpson.

In cutting legal aid, the Ford government has argued that immigration is a federal matter and the federal government should pay for legal aid for refugees and immigrants.

Simpson said "historically, the responsibility has been shared between the two levels of government, and it should continue that way." Or, she added, "at the very least, the services should have been continued until there was a new funding arrangement."

In its budget, the province said it hopes to save $164 million on legal aid spending each year starting in 2021. It added that the cuts would help streamline the delivery of legal aid.

Reverend Jeff Rock, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCC), said the cuts are "devastating" to the LGBTQ asylum seekers that his church serves. MCC runs an LGBTQ asylum seekers' program, which provides emotional and basic information support to individuals who arrive in Canada on their own. (It also has a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government for LGBTQ refugees who are brought to the church's attention by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the UNHCR.)

Rock said about 700 LGBTQ asylum seekers come to Canada and seek refugee status each year -- a number he described as "staggering."

"We do our best, but we don't have the legal expertise to give people legal advice," said Rock.

If previous years' statistics of legal aid recipients are an indicator, the number of people denied legal help as a result of the cuts will be significant, said Simpson. In 2017-2018, Legal Aid Ontario issued 13,687 legal aid certificates to refugee and immigrant individuals and families who meet certain criteria, including an annual income below $17,000. These certificates cost about $45 million per year.

The effects of these cuts will be "severe -- both for the individuals affected and for the justice system," said Simpson. Lawyers and refugee service organizations continue to field a high volume of calls from people requesting legal aid. Those immediately affected are claimants with no lawyers to prepare for their hearings, refugees who need to appeal their cases, permanent residents facing the threat of removal, and individuals subject to immigration detention.

By creating barriers like cuts to legal aid, "we are failing the human rights needs of the most marginalized and traumatized people in the world," said Rock. "They come under duress to begin a new life of freedom, and it is our moral and I might add, legal, obligation as part of the UN to accept refugees when they come to our doors."

LGBTQ refugees, in particular, "want a chance at a life of dignity in Canada, knowing that there are still 70 countries in the world where being [who they are] is illegal and eight that have the death penalty," said Rock. They are also eager to contribute to society, he said. Rock spoke about how his family recently found out that the new personal support worker taking care of his father, who lives with advanced dementia in a long-term care facility, had been a participant of MCC's refugee program.  

Simpson said Canadians need to decide "if we want to live in a country that marginalizes people seeking refuge -- to nobody's benefit -- or instead, provides supports and resources to ensure that people can get on their feet, and become contributing members of communities and economies."

Lawyers and other groups are continuing to engage in various forms of advocacy to push back against these cuts, including an online petition, which has gathered more than 15,000 signatures, said Simpson.

The Ontario attorney general’s office did not respond to rabble.ca's request for comment.

Helmer said he will keep praying "that those who hold power in Ontario today are enlightened by God." He added: "While I understand that there is sometimes a need for governments to reduce budgets and cut costs, I believe that fairer solutions can replace this decision that will deeply impact the lives of vulnerable people."

Marites N. Sison is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

Photo: Courtesy of MCC

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