Canada isn't the welcoming place it used to be for refugees, say Winnipeg advocates who took part Monday in one of several marches planned in Canadian cities this week.
"We need to turn around the negative discourse," said Jim Mair with the Canadian Council for Refugees, which helped organize the event dubbed the "walk with refugees for a stronger Canada."
Barriers to citizenship that have been put in place in recent years, such as tougher tests, higher fees and longer wait times have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable newcomers, he said.
"Defending the human rights of the world's most vulnerable citizens is an essential Canadian value," said Mair. Most of the people who call Canada home are here because someone in their lineage found refuge here, he said.
"There are a lot of positive things happening in Winnipeg -- it's a hotbed for refugees coming to Canada," he said during a walking tour of the inner city, crediting refugees for breathing new life into the neighbourhood.
Close to 75 demonstrators walked from Central Park past newcomer agencies such as Welcome Place on Bannatyne Avenue and businesses on Sargent Avenue that have made the area vibrant.
The federal government has cut services to refugee claimants and health benefits to privately sponsored refugees.
"I'm sad and embarrassed," said Karen Giesbrecht, an adviser at New Journey Housing for newcomers. She said she's glad the provincial government agreed to pay for things such as prescription drugs for privately sponsored refugees when the federal government cut them off on Canada Day 2012.
"We know the needs are great."
The latest cut was mental-health counselling for traumatized newcomers, said Dr. Mike Dillon with Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, a non-profit organization advocating for refugee health care. Refugees can make an appointment to see a psychiatrist through Manitoba Health, but federal funding for the counselling service is gone, he said.
"It's not easy when your mental-health care is cut," said Catherine Biaya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who came to Winnipeg in 2007. "If someone is raped or tortured, physically they can be healed," she said. "Mentally? You take it with you everywhere."
She said mental-health services help refugees get on with their lives and contribute to society.
"We're not beggars, but we need support."
People can live up to their potential, work and own their own homes if their health is in check, said Giesbrecht, who's met many newcomers as a volunteer at Chai Immigrant Centre. "I'm proud to speak up for refugees," she said.
"People are afraid of people they don't know," said Dillon with the non-partisan Canadian doctors, most of whom treat refugees. They formed the organization in 2012 in response to the federal government's cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program for privately sponsored refugees.
"Let's get to know each other," said Dillon.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in an email Monday Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those truly in need. "We have one of the most fair and generous immigration systems in the world," it said.
"We welcome about one out of every 10 of all resettled refugees globally -- more than almost any industrialized country in the world."