Agencies fearful of feds' takeover: Ottawa to control settlement services

By: Carol Sanders

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 A4

 Non-profit agencies helping newcomers settle in Manitoba are wondering how the federal government plans to take over settlement services.

 "There was no indication this is what they were thinking of doing," Wanda Yamamoto, executive director of Manitoba's largest refugee-settlement agency, said.

 Welcome Place just signed a one-year contract with Citizenship and Immigration to provide settlement services until March 31 next year, she said.

 "Hopefully they'll honour our contract," said Yamamoto. "Who knows after this year?"

 A spokesperson from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office said the terms of the agreement with Manitoba require 12 months' notice to withdraw so the change will happen at this time next year. New agreements will honour the terms of the deals they had with the province.

Citizenship and Immigration has pulled the rug out from under service providers elsewhere, she said. "In Ontario, last year, midway through it, a contract was discontinued," she said.

The province has worked hard with agencies to set up settlement programs tailored for Manitoba, said Linda Lalande, executive director of the Immigrant Centre.

Now Ottawa is taking back control of the programming and the funding. "I think at the federal level they want everybody to be the same," she said. The change won't affect the services the Immigrant Centre provides to clients, Lalande said.

"Who we answer to will change," she said. They've had a "close partnership" with the province, until now. If there was a concern they could address it right away, she said. "We walk over to Notre Dame," she said. "We can't walk to Ottawa."

The Salvation Army runs a multicultural family resource centre for newcomers in St. Vital and says it will keep helping them no matter what happens.

"We're more than willing to be available to help make sure people are not negatively impacted by any decisions that have to be made," said spokesman Jonathan Hamel.

It receives some federal and provincial funding for its Morrow Street centre programs, including the Life and Employment Enhancement Program. In classes of 15, newcomers develop skills, self-esteem and confidence to function in Canadian society and go to school and find and keep jobs.

"We're all about helping out those who immigrate to Canada get settled and on a right footing," said Hamel.

For now, they're not worrying about funding, he said. "We're taking a wait-and-see approach if there's any impact," said Hamel.

If the past is any indication of what to expect, there will be an impact and it won't be good, said Ben Rempel, assistant deputy minister of Manitoba Immigration and Multiculturalism.

Ottawa oversaw settlement services in Manitoba up until 15 years ago, Rempel said.

"It was at a time when Manitoba was not a destination of choice," he said. "Most coming here were refugees and the government services were really about providing social assistance and a small amount of language training."

Since then, Manitoba set up the provincial nominee program to boost the population and drive the economy. The federal government channelled settlement funding to the province, and Manitoba improved and expanded services.

"The key to developing good services is not about cutting a cheque, it's about working closely with immigrants," said Rempel. When needs change, "You can respond and improve and adjust in real time," he said.

Going back to a system with Ottawa in control holding the purse strings doesn't make sense and won't save money, he said.

"It's more bureaucratic and less responsive," Rempel said. "This is a big step backward for the province of Manitoba."

Kenney, in an interview with CBC Thursday, denied there would be any decrease in funding to Manitoba and British Columbia, which has a similar program. The minister said the changes will create a level playing field across Canada.

"This change will not affect a single cent of basic settlement funding for either province. In fact, settlement funding for newcomers in British Columbia and Manitoba will increase significantly in 2012-2013 compared to the previous year," Kenney said in Saskatoon.

NDP MPs Pat Martin and Niki Ashton argue the government's move on settlement services is a sign the Harper government wants to take control over provincial nominee programs.

"This is more than getting rid of provincial services that work well," said Ashton. "It's about politicizing the immigration system -- making the process less transparent, less accountable to provincial needs and essentially making it more difficult for newcomers and their families to come to Manitoba."

Martin called it a "fundamental shift."

"This is an attempt to put all the provincial nominee programs under federal control," he said.

  -- with files from Mia Rabson