Bused out of Quebec, francophone asylum seekers struggle to get medical services

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Over the phone, the woman’s voice is regretful but hurried — she says she’s sorry, but if the French-speaking migrant on the other end of the line cannot find someone to translate English, the doctor won’t see him for the medical exam he needs in order to claim asylum in Canada. 

CBC News obtained a recording of the phone conversation the man says took place Wednesday in Niagara Falls, Ont. 

“It’s not possible to speak with the doctor if you can’t speak English,” the woman tells him in French. “You have to find someone at your hotel to help you.” 

“I don’t know anyone here,” Guirlin — whose last name CBC News has agreed to withhold because of his precarious immigration status — replies.

Guirlin and his family are among the more than 5,500 asylum seekers who have been bused by Canada’s government from Quebec’s border with the U.S. to cities in Ontario, including Windsor, Cornwall and Niagara Falls. 

They are also among a number of those — mostly francophones from Haiti or countries in Africa — for whom the transfer happened against their wishes since they could not afford to find a place to stay immediately. Their plan all along was to live in Quebec.

Guirlin, his wife, who is six months pregnant, and their four-year-old son ended up in Niagara Falls on Feb. 14. Originally from Haiti, the family had been struggling to make ends meet in Brazil, when they decided to travel north through a dozen countries to make their way to Canada. 

When they arrived on Feb. 11 via Roxham Road, the popular irregular border crossing south of Montreal, they were asked by immigration officers where they planned to live in Canada.

“I said we want to stay in Montreal because I don’t speak English and my wife doesn’t either, and she needs to have medical appointments for the pregnancy,” Guirlin said in a phone interview Thursday. 

He says they were told in the following days there was no space for them in Montreal, and that they were being sent to Ontario. They boarded a bus with roughly 40 other asylum seekers from a number of other countries last Tuesday. For now, the government has put them up in a hotel. 

A photo Guirlin took with his phone in Niagara Falls, Ont., showing the Skylon Tower. He and his family have been staying there in a hotel after the government bused them out of Quebec. (Submitted by Guirlin)

Arrived with $45

Guirlin says he arrived in Canada with $45 to his name, having spent his savings on getting his family to Canada. He’s got about $10 left from that. He had to buy a SIM card to be able to make calls for appointments and had to pay to open a bank account, one of the first tasks newcomers to Canada are asked to complete. 

After arriving in Niagara Falls, Guirlin says he and his family were referred to the Niagara Immigration Medical Centre to get their medical exams. 

That’s when he had the exchange with the employee who told him the clinic wouldn’t be able to serve them unless they had a translator. 

Guirlin told CBC News there are people at the hotel who can do English-Spanish translation, but not English-French. 

He’s been helping another woman, Sarah, who doesn’t speak French, only Haitian Creole. She also requested that CBC News withhold her last name due to immigration issues.

Sarah, too, had written in her file that she wanted to live in Montreal with her two young children. She was hoping to find support from the city’s Haitian community, one of the largest in North America. 

They’re treating people like cattle and that’s not acceptable.– Frantz André, advocate for asylum seekers

Guirlin says his family and Sarah’s aren’t the only francophones at the hotel in their position, raising questions about whether Ontario was prepared to help them. 

“Service in French is a right for everyone in Canada,” said Bonaventure Otshudi, the director of a local francophone health services centre, the Centre de Santé Communautaire Hamilton/Niagara. 

Otshudi said his centre warned government officials there would need to be interpreters at the hotels where newcomers are being housed. 

The federal government revealed in early February it had for months been shuttling asylum seekers from Quebec to cities elsewhere in Canada, following requests from the Quebec government, which has said its services are stretched beyond limit. 

Immigration advocates have criticized the move as a Band-Aid solution that could further harm migrants by imposing more instability in their lives and removing their agency to choose where to live.

A man in a vest speaks into a phone inside a white office, with a Haitian flag on the wall.

Frantz André, an advocate for asylum seekers, says it’s not right for asylum seekers to be relocated ‘like cattle.’ (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

“You have people being taken from Texas to New York, New York to Canada and now they’re sending people anywhere,” said Frantz André, who helps Haitian asylum seekers settle in Montreal. Guirlin got in touch with him through a friend of a friend.

“I mean, they’re treating people like cattle and that’s not acceptable and it’s not right.”

André blames the Quebec government for its lack of agility in responding to the sharp rise in asylum seekers arriving into the province since 2021.

Premier François Legault and his government have been criticized for comments made about immigrants, including suggesting newcomers to the province are at fault for a slight decline in French spoken at home.

“The federal government is improvising under political pressure from François Legault. It’s purely political. Meanwhile, this is a humanitarian issue,” André said.

“I understand resources are stretched … but this it’s not a reason to create additional distress.”

Guirlin’s family and Sarah and her two children shared a taxi to get to the clinic Thursday. Guirlin says they took a gamble and showed up, even though they hadn’t found a translator.

Following calls from André and two journalists, Guirlin says staff there finally agreed to let him see the doctor. An employee who spoke a bit of French helped translate. 

According to André, a receptionist told him the clinic had initially refused because it wanted to be able to guarantee its patients understood all the information given to them.

The clinic did not respond to requests for comment. 

List of doctors

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) suggested Guirlin was not informed about the availability of bilingual doctors. 

“IRCC is committed to providing applicants in Canada with service in the official language of their choice: English or French,” spokesperson Remi Larivière said in a statement.

“We have more than 150 bilingual and French-speaking designated physicians across the country to facilitate applicants’ access to an appointment in the language of their choice.”

Larivière said the list of those physicians is available on the ministry’s website. That site notes one francophone doctor in Niagara Falls. 

The Rainbow Bridge spans the Niagara River and connects the Canadian side, right, to Niagara Falls, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

Guirlin says he and Sarah feel left to their own devices at the hotel, with no government employees on hand to guide them in any way. 

“[People here] don’t have patience to answer you if you don’t speak English,” he said, adding he’s been using a translation app on his phone to communicate. 

In the short time Guirlin and Sarah have been in Niagara Falls, they’ve noticed the region’s economy appears geared toward tourism and that speaking English is key to obtaining work. 

“From what I see, I think immigrants aren’t welcome here,” Guirlin said. “It would be really complicated to be an immigrant in Niagara.”

If they want to go to Montreal, Guirlin and his wife were told they would have to foot the bill to get there themselves and won’t be given a spot at a hotel or government shelter. They hope to find enough money to do so as soon as possible.

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