EMERSON — At the Emerson fire hall, only a five-minute drive from where freezing men and women stagger through frigid fields on most nights, Ralph Goodale stood at a podium and pledged federal government support.
But as of now, he said, Canada will not reconsider the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, the document that has recently motivated more than 200 asylum seekers to attempt to cross the border in treacherous weather.
The public safety minister, dispatched by Ottawa Saturday to tour border facilities, said little of note in a 26-minute news conference. His message was largely one of reassurance: long on affirmations, short on new specifics.
So Goodale thanked the community of Emerson, suddenly thrust into an international spotlight as asylum seekers slip over the nearby border. The response in the community of 650 people has been "truly inspiring," Goodale said.
"You have represented the very best instincts and values of Canadians in responding to this asylum-seeking situation," the minister added. "The way the community has reacted to it has been a very fine example of Canada."
That was not the only message Goodale came to Emerson to deliver.
The laws of the country are being enforced, he said, in a thinly veiled response to Tory critics. Canada will respect its international obligations, he added.
He noted how governments are collaborating to address the urgent situation.
He also pledged the federal government will ensure agencies on the front lines have enough resources to meet the growing need. That includes the CBSA and the RCMP, who Goodale said were currently "properly resourced."
"If they need additional physical resources... to cope with the volumes, we will get that recommendation from the CBSA," he said. "We’ll monitor things very carefully to see how that changes and respond accordingly."
For Emerson, whose fire department has shouldered a heavy load, the feds will reimburse $30,000 to ease the strain on their budget. RM of Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen said he was pleased with that commitment.
"The support and communication has been almost overwhelming, in a way," Janzen said, with a nod to the nearby throng of national and international media.
"I can’t be more pleased, because we are all talking on a constant basis."
That collaboration Janzen described could become more pressing. Emerson is already standing in an international spotlight on asylum seekers and migration. That spotlight may get brighter yet in the weeks and months to come.
Spring is coming. As it approaches, bringing more amenable weather, advocates for asylum seekers think the numbers of people slipping over the border could skyrocket further. How is Ottawa planning for that possibility?
Goodale demurred from specifics. "One thing about a contingency plan, especially when it involves international borders and issues of international implications, you don’t speculate about that plan in advance," he said.
"Anticipating what will be the impact of weather, are there other variables that will bear on the circumstances... the key thing is to make sure all of our agencies on the ground in Emerson have the resources necessary to do the job."
He wouldn’t commit to how the government will support settlement agencies such as Welcome Place in Winnipeg, which has taken the lead on assisting asylum seekers. Many of those agencies are struggling to meet the increased need.
"We want to see them in a position to be able to discharge that humanitarian compassion for which they are justifiably very proud," Goodale said. "(Immigration) Minister Hussen will carry on that dialogue with them."
Goodale was clear on one thing: at this time, Canada will not reconsider the Safe Third Country Agreement. Under the agreement, most people seeking refugee status in either Canada or the U.S. must make their claim in the first of the two countries they reach. (There are exceptions, including for families and unaccompanied minors.)
That means most people hoping to making a refugee claim in Canada cannot enter at a border crossing; they will be turned away. Instead, many make their way to the edge of North Dakota, and walk across the border at night.
In January, at least one asylum seeker lost all of his fingers and a toe to frostbite after slogging hours through waist-deep snow. They emerged just a few kilometres away from where Goodale held his news conference.
Advocates would like to see the Safe Third Country Agreement rescinded, to allow asylum seekers to report safely to a border station to make their claim. Goodale shook his head and said "no" when asked about that idea.
"It has proven to be an effective and compassionate tool," Goodale said, of the agreement. "The immigration department at this stage has no basis upon which to doubt its continued efficacy."
Which leaves the question: with the U.S. implementing or preparing to implement a variety of crackdowns on refugee claims, undocumented immigration and visa applications, does Ottawa still consider it a safe country for refugees?
"The UN has given that verification," Goodale said. "There’s no information available to Canada that would contradict that."