Alberta is preparing to accept 850 Syrian refugees by the end of the year — with more than half destined for Calgary — but the high price of city housing is a potential sticking point around resettlement.
On Wednesday, federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum was in Calgary on the first stop of a national tour of major Canadian cities that will accept refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.
McCallum — who met with provincial minister Lori Sigurdson, Mayor Naheed Nenshi and immigration agencies at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre — said the federal government’s priority for refugees is “housing, housing, housing.”
While the provincial government has asked Ottawa for an additional $5 million to help cover housing costs, McCallum was non-committal about the request.
“I’m not saying no, but we’ve already put in close to $700 million on the table,” McCallum told reporters.
“This is not a federal government project; this is not an all-government project; this is a national project.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government had originally pledged to bring in 25,000 refugees fleeing Syria by the end of 2015, but McCallum announced last week only 10,000 will enter Canada by the end of the year. The rest are expected by the end of February.
Alberta has said it can take up to 3,000 refugees, but a week ago it was still uncertain about timetables and numbers.
Sigurdson, who is responsible for the immigration file as Alberta’s minister of jobs, skills, training and labour, said Wednesday the province now expects 850 refugees by year-end. It’s expected 50 will be sponsored by Ottawa and the rest sponsored by churches, charities, family members and private citizens.
Calgary will become home to 502 of the privately sponsored refugees, according to the province.
The City of Calgary expects to receive about 1,300 refugees, although Nenshi acknowledged the number could go higher.
The mayor said there is no issue around housing availability in the city, with a five per cent vacancy rate and about 2,500 open suites — but there are other issues.
“There are lots and lots of vacancies. It’s a matter of making sure people can afford them. As you know, rent in Calgary is expensive,” said Nenshi, who noted refugees will not be given places in social housing units that already have long waiting lists.
Nenshi said he had spoken to one refugee family of four that found a home to rent for $1,100 a month, but, until the father is able to find work as a mechanical engineer, their monthly income is only $1,500.
“The federal government is hundreds of millions of dollars into this and you can’t lose the game at the end over a few inches,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to be able to solve that gap.”
According to resettlement agencies, Ottawa provides less than $700 to house a family of four refugees each month, which is far below the costs of renting in the province.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reported last month the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city has increased slightly over the past year to $1,332 a month.
Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, told reporters that resettlement of refugees is a major job that has to be done right from the start.
“The task is not easy. You’re going to get people coming that have gone through a lot of hardship, through trauma,” he said.
“The first five, six months getting them involved in the community … and making them feel this is a new beginning for themselves and their family — this is the task we are having.”
Since many of the new refugees who settle in the city will have children, the Calgary Board of Education said Wednesday it will work with families to transition the youngsters into Calgary schools.
The board has interpreters and advisers who will help the new Calgarians adjust to the school system, the CBE said in a statement.
As for housing, both Nenshi and McCallum said they are counting on the private sector to help provide affordable spaces to house refugees.
On hand for the news conference were representatives of two major holders of housing properties.
Mainstreet Equity Corp. is providing 200 rental units across Western Canada either free or at a reduced rate to house refugees, while Boardwalk Rental Communities is offering 350 discounted units in Canada.
McCallum said he hoped the two companies were just “the tip of the iceberg” of private companies contributing to housing refugees.
He also suggested the province could increase its funding. The NDP government has committed $1.3 million so far.
Sigurdson did not address the federal funding issue to reporters. But she said Alberta has been working on the refugee issue since before the election of the Liberal government in October and it’s confident the province is ready.
“We have a cross-ministerial team that is working on making sure the people coming will have access to good public education, health care, housing,” she said.
“We are stepping up and doing the right thing.”
With files from Erika Stark, Calgary Herald