Ontario has joined seven other provinces in announcing it will no longer incarcerate migrants detained for administrative reasons in its provincial jails.
Earlier this week, a Radio-Canada/CBC report revealed that Quebec and New Brunswick had ended their contracts with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), under which the provinces were paid to imprison foreign nationals held under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Following that news, human rights organizations and immigration lawyers reinforced their appeal to Ontario, where CBSA detains the most migrants, to follow suit.
On Thursday, Ontario Solicitor General Michael Kerzner told federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino that his government was also cancelling its contract. Under these agreements, the provinces must give CBSA one year’s notice of cancellation.
Ontario’s decision was first reported by the Globe and Mail. Radio-Canada/CBC confirmed the information.
“Ontario’s correctional institutions should be focused on providing care and custody to individuals serving custodial sentences or on remand, not on immigration detainees, which is the federal government’s responsibility,” a ministry spokesperson told Radio-Canada/CBC.
Years behind bars
Many migrants have spent years in provincial jails without knowing when they’d get out.
That’s what happened to Abdirahman Warssama, originally from Somalia, who remained locked up for five years and seven months in maximum security jails in Ontario, including one in Lindsay, Ont., about 135 kilometres northeast of Toronto.
Warssama, like other immigration detainees, was not charged with a crime at the time. Nevertheless, he was incarcerated with hardened criminals while CBSA unsuccessfully tried to arrange his removal to Somalia.
Between 2015 and 2020, roughly one-quarter of the 8,000 migrants detained on average each year by CBSA were sent to provincial jails.
By the fiscal year of 2021-2022, the number of immigration detainees had fallen to about 3,000, but close to one-quarter of them were still kept in provincial jails. Most of the others were sent to federal immigration holding centres.
Ontario, Quebec and New-Brunswick have now joined B.C., Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in ending their contracts with CBSA.
With only a few weeks to go before some of these agreements lapse, both Mendicino and the Immigration Minister Sean Fraser admitted on Tuesday that they haven’t decided what will happen to the immigration detainees in those jails.
The lack of a federal plan worries many migrant rights advocates.
2 remaining provinces
For now, Prince Edward Island continues to accept migrants in its provincial jails, although it does not have a formal agreement with CBSA.
P.E.I.’s Department of Justice and Public Safety told Radio-Canada/CBC that CBSA initiated discussions in 2020 to come to a formal agreement, but that the province “halted those discussions in 2021.”
The province “will continue to monitor how provincial counterparts are moving forward in order to ensure that P.E.I. is in alignment with an agreed upon standard,” the department said without elaborating.
Newfoundland and Labrador said it has no formal agreement with CBSA, but refused to say if it will continue to hold immigration detainees as it has done in the past. CBSA also refused to comment.