Not many people are aware that a residency requirement for social assistance has traditionally been banned in Canada. If a province or territory chose to impose one, they would risk losing federal funding in this area. This is an abstract legal principle not particularly relevant to the average Canadian. Even those who receive welfare are likely unaware of the importance of this provision.
However, the prohibition has been a cornerstone of Canadian social policy for nearly sixty years, and for good reason. It has allowed anyone in Canada who meets the criteria to access enough money to support themselves regardless of how long they have been in the country. This has provided a safety net for those with no other means and its enforcement nationwide has ensured that people would be able to access services of comparable quality no matter their place of residence.
Last year, with the passage of C-43 – the omnibus budget implementation bill, the federal government removed the financial penalty for imposing a residency requirement for social assistance.
There are exceptions. Canadian citizens, permanent residents, victims of human trafficking with a temporary resident permit, and accepted refugees would not have to meet this requirement. It is those who are not explicitly named who would be most adversely affected, and these are refugees who file their claims in Canada.
The federal government has cited three main reasons for removing the prohibition. First, they claim that it will deter “bogus” refugees from coming to take advantage of our “generous” welfare system. Second, they claim that taxpayers will save money as the number of people who rely on social assistance will decrease. Finally, they have pointed out that social assistance lies within provincial jurisdiction, and this measure removes the “paternal” role of the federal government.
Sounds admirable. The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the first assertion; the second is patently false as all available data suggests that costs will actually increase for taxpayers; and the third ignores the fact that refugee protection is the responsibility of the federal government.
A new study by Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), “The Invisible Victims,” examines the economic, humanitarian, and legal implications of a residency requirement for this particular group. It includes a survey of service providers who work directly with refugees as well as personal testimonies from claimants, and demonstrates that not only would these individuals be unable to support themselves without social assistance, but the capacity of these organizations to provide services would be greatly impeded as they are already overstretched for resources.
Earlier this year, CPJ reported that the leaders of eight provincial and territorial governments have stated outright that they have no intention of imposing a residency requirement, and none have so far indicated any interest in changing their current income assistance programs as a result of this new policy.
Therefore, there may not be much of a threat to refugees – so why worry?
The concern lies in the uncertainty that has been created for refugee claimants and the organizations that support them. There are many factors that could eventually lead a province or territory to decide to utilize this provision and there is no telling if or when this may happen. The federal government has thus left them vulnerable to policy change based on political interests in the name of “granting more autonomy” to the provinces.
More broadly, this piece of legislation is only the latest in a series of actions taken by the federal government in recent years to create further obstacles for refugee claimants in an effort to deter them from coming to Canada at all. It is likely that this will not be the last attempt to make their lives more miserable. That is why it is important to be informed of its existence and its repercussions.
Every justification the federal government has given to support this policy change has proven to have no merit. The only thing it would accomplish is an increased burden on taxpayers and, more importantly, even greater hardship for refugees who already face unimaginable difficulties when they come to Canada.
As citizens and advocates, we need to decide if this is the kind of Canada we want to be.