Trudeau government is negotiating with provinces to keep migrants behind bars

Two men shake hands in front of the flags of Canada and Quebec.
On June 10, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, offered $750 million to Quebec Premier François Legault, left, to help with the influx of asylum seekers into the province. The federal government has asked Quebec to continue holding migrants in its prisons. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Despite assurances from all Canadian provinces that they are ending their immigration detention agreements with the federal government, Ontario and Quebec now appear to be backing down — at the federal government’s request.

The Ontario government has said it would refuse to hold migrants in its provincial jails on behalf of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) starting June 15.

However, Radio-Canada has learned that migrants detained for administrative reasons in that province remain behind bars and could remain behind bars for some time.

“Following a request from the Canadian government, a 45-day extension of the immigration agreement was granted,” a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed.

The spokesperson said the extension expires on July 31, 2024, but the CBSA has not confirmed a precise deadline and says discussions are ongoing with Ontario and Quebec.

A police officer and another man unload suitcases from a vehicle.
In this file photo, a man removes his belongings from a CBSA truck at an asylum processing center in Quebec. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau also wants Legault’s extension

Quebec had also indicated that it would no longer detain people for immigration purposes starting June 30.

But that too appears to have changed after a recent meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Quebec counterpart, François Legault.

Ottawa offered $750 million to help Quebec pay for services for asylum seekers, and migrant detention was part of the talks.

“During their June 10 meeting, the prime minister and the premier said they are ready to open the discussion on this topic,” the Quebec newspaper wrote. Executive Council in response to questions from Radio-Canada.

“The two governments are currently in discussions,” added the council, which reports directly to Quebec’s premier.

Neither the federal nor Quebec governments are offering a precise timetable for a possible contract extension, but the federal government’s funding proposal reads: “The Government of Canada has requested continued access to Quebec prisons for an additional 18 months.”

A sign to an 'immigration reception center'.
The Canada Border Services Agency operates three of its own immigration detention centres, including one in Laval, Quebec. (Olivier Plante/Radio Canada)

‘The most vulnerable of the most vulnerable’

Immigration lawyer Pierre-Olivier Marcoux of the Legal Aid Clinic in Montreal says he is very concerned about these new developments.

He described detained migrants as “the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable” and said they will “suffer” even more if the use of prisons is allowed.

When the CBSA detains people for immigration purposes, it can choose to hold them in a provincial jail or in one of its immigration detention centers in Toronto, Laval, Quebec and Surrey, BC.

“Detention in a provincial facility, in provinces where this measure is still available, is limited to the most difficult cases, when there are serious concerns about danger to the public, to other detainees or to staff,” CBSA wrote in an email to Radio-Canada.

According to Marcoux, many of these detainees suffer from mental health problems and become agitated in detention.

A man at a desk looks at a laptop.
“Our clients often tell us about their difficulties in accessing care, whether it’s mental health care or physical health care, difficulties in accessing clean clothing, personal hygiene items, difficulties in getting outside for fresh air, problems with overcrowding, attacks by other detainees,” said spokesperson immigration lawyer Pierre-Olivier Marcoux. “I also personally see difficulties in reaching their lawyer for phone calls or site visits.” (Submitted)

He said one of his clients is currently being held in Montreal’s Rivière-des-Prairies jail because he is considered a flight risk, not because he is considered a danger to the public.

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, CBSA can detain aliens and permanent residents for three primary reasons: if their identity has not been adequately established, if they are considered a danger to the public, or if they are considered a flight risk, meaning the Border Patrol believes they will not appear for immigration processes, including removal.

From April 1, 2023 to March 31, 2024, CBSA detained nearly 5,000 migrants, 78 percent of whom were considered flight risks. Of all immigrants detained, 17 percent were sent to a provincial jail.

According to Marcoux, the use of prisons for immigrants in custody violates Canada’s human rights obligations.

A prison can be seen behind a fence.
One of Marcoux’s clients, who struggles with mental health issues, is being held in Montreal’s Rivière-des-Prairies prison as a flight risk. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

‘In a cell without a working toilet’

The conditions migrants face in detention have also been denounced by members of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), the country’s largest independent administrative tribunal.

The IRB is responsible for, among other things, assessing the reasons CBSA provides for detaining a person, but has no control over where the detention takes place.

In the transcripts of the 2022 and 2023 IRB hearings obtained by Radio-Canada, the topic of poor living conditions often came up in relation to Maplehurst Correctional Complex, a maximum-security detention center in Milton, Ontario, where people are often incarcerated for immigration purposes.

Behind a high fence you can see a prison.
Members of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada have decried poor conditions at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ontario, where immigrants are held in custody. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Here are some examples of comments from IRB members regarding immigration detentions that were considered flight risks:

  • “Someone with mental problems was in his cell for 23 and a half hours a day [for over two months] with very little human interaction. And then he [interaction], he had to express how excited he was to see someone who was just checking in, because otherwise he wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. That is very concerning, and I want to make it clear … that that is unacceptable.”
  • “Frankly, the conditions you describe are appalling. The most concerning thing to me is that in the week or so you’ve been in custody, you’ve only showered once, and you’re in a cell without a working toilet. These details are disturbing.” (The toilet was described as broken and overflowing with used toilet paper from previous inmates, and the resulting odor as nauseating.)
  • “Maplehurst is not appropriate for someone with serious mental health issues. The conditions have been described as inhumane … because of the overcrowding, lack of resources, lack of supervision and other rehabilitation programs … It is totally inappropriate.” (The IRB member also highlighted the difficulty of speaking directly with the detainee, whose detention review hearing has been cancelled several times due to staffing problems at Maplehurst. The member blamed the delays on CBSA because it chose to hold the man in “a facility that is not capable of holding a normal number of hearings.”)

According to the CBSA, the agency is increasingly turning to its own facilities to “house higher-risk individuals.”

Chain link fencing with barbed wire.
Migrants are still being held in prisons in Ontario and Quebec, including the Rivière-des-Prairies prison in Montreal. (Radio Canada)

The federal government has invested $325 million over the next five years to adapt the three immigration detention centers.

The government also plans to use its federal prisons to detain migrants. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Canada in May, said it was “concerned” by the plan.

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are calling on the federal government to end all forms of detention of migrants for administrative reasons.

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