refugee claimants asylum seekers Quebec subsidized daycare

Quebec denying access to subsidized daycare for refugee claimants is senseless

A 2018 rule-change under the Liberals, which the CAQ refuses to amend, will finally be challenged in court next month.

“When we first came to Quebec as refugee claimants from Haiti in 2017,” says Vladimir, “my wife and I had one child, and she was pregnant with our second.” 

At the time, the couple was able to benefit from subsidized daycare services offered to asylum seekers. But in April 2018, that came to an end when the Liberals reversed that with a simple rule change. 

“When our son was ready for daycare, my wife wanted to go back to work, but we had no access to subsidized childcare,” Vladimir says. “I was working a minimum-wage job at Tim Horton’s at the time. We were no longer on welfare, but we were barely getting by. She’s used to working and she wanted to contribute to our household and to our community, but $40-a-day daycare was simply not manageable for us.”

When the Liberal government decided to discontinue offering subsidized childcare services to asylum seekers, the Comité Accès Garderie was formed to fight it. In May of 2019, a group of lawyers representing asylum seekers decided to take the government to court. On April 21 and 22, they will finally be contesting the decision. 

Work permits without access to daycare is nonsensical 

Interestingly, how that legal challenge came about is mere happenstance. Sibel Ataogul, one of the lawyers involved, was asked by a friend of hers who was assisting a refugee family settling in Montreal to lend her help — and her car — to the move. When Ataogul asked the woman how she was settling in, the refugee claimant told her that she had recently received her work permit but was unable to work because she had no access to subsidized daycare.

“Giving asylum seekers work permits, without access to subsidized daycare, just didn’t seem to make any sense,” Ataogul says. “I thought it was worth contesting.” 

Ataogul says she and her husband have good jobs and make a decent living, and still receive access to subsidized daycare. “We are able to do the work that we do because we have access to daycare.” 

The lawsuit argues this directive disproportionately affects women, and many single-mother households. It isn’t just a Charter challenge but a challenge of the directive itself, because the law doesn’t allow the government, by regulation, to take away access or create these kinds of categories where some are discriminated against — and some aren’t.

Having experienced the process himself, Vladimir doesn’t understand why the government is forcing asylum seekers to remain on welfare, essentially costing Quebec taxpayers, instead of letting people who want to work, simply work. 

“It makes much more sense to allow us to gain a living and pay taxes,” he says. “I don’t understand how it doesn’t make sense for the government.” 

All parties except CAQ support recent amendment

Support for a change has been growing. On March 23, opposition MNAs tabled an amendment to include access to subsidized childcare services for all children regardless of the immigration status of their parents. It’s a move that’s supported by the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association, with their president signing an open letter of support in Le Devoir a few days ago. The amendment, tabled by Christine Labrie of Québec Solidaire, was supported by her party, the Parti Québécois and the Quebec Liberal Party, but was rejected by the CAQ. 

The current status quo stipulates that subsidized childcare is only available to refugees whose status has already been formally approved. Considering lengthy backlogs and pandemic-related delays, that means claimants are forced to wait (with no recourse to work or French-language studies) sometimes for up to two years. 

Maryse Poisson, the director of social initiatives for the Welcome Collective (a Montreal-based non-profit that focuses on helping vulnerable refugee claimants — primarily single parents, pregnant women and mothers with newborns) and co-founder of the Comité Accès Garderie had high hopes when QS recently tabled the amendment. 

“We really thought it was an opportunity for the government to reconsider this decision,” Poisson says. “These asylum seekers are here, they’re among us, they’re ready to work. The acceptance rate for asylum claims is currently at 57%, so that means many of these future Quebecers are starting their lives here isolated and in serious precarity, unable to take French lessons or work, isolated for years.” 

Extending poverty and isolation 

Poisson says that living on welfare means that most refugee claimants are surviving with almost nothing. “So many of these people are very shy and don’t request much,” she says. “They’re so appreciative, but the situation is very hard on them. Rents are very high, some can’t even afford public transit, and most of them rely on food banks to survive.” 

With many asylum seekers coming from French-speaking countries like the Congo and Haiti who are ready to join the workforce — many in essential services most Quebecers aren’t interested in — Poisson feels Quebec is missing out by failing to give them the tools and services needed to become contributing members of society as soon as possible. 

“I know so many of these young families who want to work,” she says. “One of the single moms I recently met was a nurse back home. She could easily upgrade her skills and join the workforce, we need healthcare workers, but she’s being penalized. A large percentage of asylum seekers are single moms. What we’re asking for them is just a fair chance, an equal chance to be on a waiting list for subsidized daycare, like everyone else. We’re not asking for any privileges. So many of these people could be working, paying taxes. It’s costing us in the long run to keep them on welfare.” 

While Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has reduced the delay to issue work permits for asylum seekers to promote quicker economic integration and to decrease claims for social assistance, the Quebec government insists on denying access to subsidized childcare while an asylum claim is processed. What’s the point then in speeding up and granting work permits if these claimants can’t even use them? 

Delayed integration has consequences

Though no government body appears to be able to confirm the exact number of people impacted by this regulation, advocates say there are hundreds of people who find themselves in this situation. These families (especially single-mom households) spend months and sometimes years isolated, prevented from applying for jobs or courses they’re qualified for. Their children, in turn, are prevented from integrating, making friends, acquiring new language and social skills. With the economic and social benefits of early integration well documented, this deprivation creates potential obstacles to their long-term educational success, their career prospects and their physical and mental health. 

These consequences inevitably also impact the society that welcomes them. Many refugee claimants are forced to suddenly accelerate the learning process after their claims have been accepted, putting undue pressure on them, their families and the educational institutions that receive them. In addition, some may never catch up, resulting in lower self-esteem or a decreased sense of belonging. The earlier we include people and stack the odds in their favour, the earlier we mitigate the need for later intervention. 

Restricting access to daycares benefits no one 

Some would argue that with Quebec citizens on waiting lists for daycares, why should refugee claimants gain access to any of these coveted spots? The answer is simple: Because, advocates say, it costs far more to prevent them from accessing them. Collectively, Quebec pays the price. 

The Comité Accès Garderie, along with the Melançon Marceau Grenier Cohen law firm and Quebec’s Youth Rights Commission are asking the government “to act now and allow all families residing in Quebec to have access to subsidized childcare services, for the benefit of children, women, families and Quebec society.” They have written a letter that Quebecers are invited to sign. 

While catastrophic and cruel immigration policies have often resulted in mass illegal pushbacks, family separation or children dying of neglect in U.S. refugee camps and around the world, what we do here in Quebec may be kinder in comparison — but it’s still not kind. These children are being penalized and ostracized, their futures compromised because the CAQ has chosen to focus on short-sighted optics instead of long-term solutions and compassion. 

A moral imperative to help the most vulnerable 

The status quo as it stands is punitive. It accomplishes nothing other than satisfying the gatekeepers who moan and groan about asylum seekers and refugees taking up our space, our resources and our services. Ultimately, if we’re missing daycare spots it isn’t the fault of a few refugees and their children. We’re missing spots because we’ve allowed successive Quebec governments to fail to prioritize childcare and educational services.

What are these children to do for two years? Why should they be punished for their refugee status? Why should they be robbed of the essential socialization, language and social skills acquisition that all young children need in order to develop successfully? Why are we punishing single moms and refugees who come here with so little? Are we global citizens with a moral imperative to help those requesting help, or are we not?  

Vladimir and his family were some of the lucky ones. Since their refugee claim was accepted back in October 2018, both parents have been steadily working and he says things are much better for them now. He recently purchased a cleaning company and enjoys being self-employed. He says he’s speaking with me because, even though the directive no longer personally affects him, he wants to help the next refugee claimants who find themselves at our door. 

“If I can make it even a little bit easier for newcomers, I want to be able to do that.” 

Nota bene: The Welcome Collective is actively soliciting donations for the most vulnerable Quebec refugee claimants. The organization helps 12 families per week settle in with donations of furniture, baby clothes, kitchen items and any items for newborns. If you have any of these items to donate, they will happily pick them up from you. You can reach out at the Welcome Collective. Financial donations are also welcome. 

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.