When a government dishes out taxpayers’ money in a secretive way, alarm bells should ring. So it is with the federal Liberals’ hush-hush payments to Quebecers living near an entry point for irregular asylum claimants.
Governments have large communication teams that usually herald spending with press releases and media conferences, an essential foundation of transparent governance and, not incidentally, a way for governments to solicit the support of citizens who are directly affected by the spending announcements.
So when details of payments to about 45 Quebec homeowners were contained in an internal document labelled "secret," it didn’t take a forensic detective to deduce something suspicious was afoot. The document was only pried open by a freedom-of-information request by the Free Press.
The spending outlined in the document — Manitobans didn’t get any, it all went to Quebecers — revealed why the federal Liberals were anxious to keep the $405,000 in payments under the table.
The background is that the southern borders of Quebec and Manitoba were the main crossing points where asylum claimants bypassed traditional immigration procedure and entered Canada from the United States. They can skirt formal crossing posts without being prosecuted if they immediately report to authorities and file an asylum claim.
The Liberals decided to financially compensate Quebec homeowners who were "inconvenienced" because the asylum claimants caused more traffic and noise outside their doors. Homeowners in Emerson had similar experiences — some reported asylum claimants peeking in their windows or resting in their sheds — but the Manitobans shouldn’t wait at their mailboxes for government cheques.
It would be understandable if Quebec got the bulk of the money; it was the crossing point for about 90 per cent of the 40,000 people who have entered Canada from the U.S. outside regular border points over the past two years. But to freeze Manitoba out completely? It’s a reminder of an ugly Canadian tradition of federal parties stroking vote-rich Quebec and giving the figurative middle finger to less populous provinces like Manitoba.
Such an image is a crude but accurate way to depict the unease of many Manitobans who feel this province’s traditional insignificance in the federation was epitomized in 1986, when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government awarded a maintenance contract for CF-18 fighter planes to Quebec-based Bombardier despite a better and cheaper bid from Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace. The issue was so polarizing it helped spawn the Reform Party.
We long for Manitoba’s seven Liberal MPs to assure us things have changed since then, and that the Ottawa power brokers are now able to locate Manitoba on a map. But, so far, none of them have offered public comment on why the $405,000 payment to Quebecers was considered a secret, and why Manitoba was ignored.
There remains opportunity for Ottawa to do better. Asylum seekers have cost Manitoba $17 million for housing, welfare, education, Legal Aid, health and child welfare. Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly asked the federal government to pay these costs out of a $100-million fund Ottawa earmarked "to support the increased volume of asylum seekers."
When will Manitoba get financial fairness on the issue of border crossers? During the campaign for the Oct. 21 federal election, it’s a fair question to ask Manitoba’s Liberal MPs: Jim Carr, Terry Duguid, Doug Eyolfson, Kevin Lamoureaux, MaryAnn Mihychuk, Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Dan Vandal.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.