This story is a part of UNAIDED, a HuffPost Canada series that examines the effects of recent funding cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system and the impacts on the vulnerable people who rely on it to navigate our complicated justice system.
TORONTO — Sebastian Commock remembers the incident that made him want to leave Jamaica for good.
A man came into his office where he worked as a concierge to borrow a pen.
“I handed a pen to him and he took up a napkin, and held the pen with a napkin.”
The man refused to touch something that belonged to an LGBTQ person. Commock says that in Jamaica, anyone who’s different, who dresses or speaks in a certain way, is assumed to be LGBTQ.
“At that point I was like, I’m not willing to go through these things,” Commock told HuffPost Canada. “Seeing as I’m contributing positively to society, then there are these little stupid people who are making me feel like this is not a place that I belong.”
Commock, then 24, packed his clothes and bought a plane ticket to Toronto. In September 2015, a month after his plane landed, he applied to stay in Canada as a refugee.
He met friends who told him about The 519, a local charity and agency that serves LGBTQ folks. The 519 referred him to Legal Aid Ontario, a program funded by the provincial government to provide lawyers to people with little income, including refugees. So Commock got a lawyer to help him through the process to get refugee status.
Legal aid gave Commock some comfort during a “horrifying” year-long wait for his Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearing, he says.
It was a comfort that other refugees might not get in the future. Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government cut funding for the legal services that help refugees in its 2019 budget. Ontario will now only pay for lawyers to help refugee claimants fill out their initial basis of claim forms, but won’t cover time spent preparing for or attending IRB hearings.
Legal Aid Ontario is trying to replace the funding with money from the federal government, but if that doesn’t happen, spokesman Graeme Burk told HuffPost that refugee claimants will be on their own after the initial claim.
“Seeing the situation that exists back home I probably ... would have been targeted or even killed.”
If he hadn’t prepared for his IRB hearing with a lawyer, Commock says his claim probably would have been denied. His counsel did a mock hearing with him and asked detailed questions about his personal life and experience in Jamaica so that he’d be ready for the board.
“If I didn’t have legal aid, I probably would have lost my hearing,” Commock said. “With that, I’d be sent back home and seeing the situation that exists back home I probably — or more than likely, not probably — would have been targeted or even killed.”
Commock says he has friends and acquaintances who’ve been murdered in Jamaica because of their sexual orientation.
He recalls waiting for public transportation after work one night when a car stopped, lingered and then drove off. The next day, his colleague said that she was in the car and the driver, a friend of hers, had said that if no one else was around, he would’ve picked up Commock and they wouldn’t have heard from him again.
It’s illegal for two men to engage in acts of intimacy in Jamaica. There is “unchecked homophobic violence” in the country and the LGBTQ community can’t rely on the police to investigate, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.
Refugee lawyer calls cuts ‘appalling’
For refugees who come to Canada from dangerous countries around the world, Ontario’s cuts will be “utterly disastrous,” Mary Boyce told HuffPost. She’s a lawyer who works with refugees in Toronto and says more than half of her clients are on legal aid.
Without legal aid, there could be refugees who get deported and then wind up being murdered, tortured or otherwise abused, Boyce said.
“This is just appalling,” Boyce said. “It seems neither level of government cares.”
It would be “very, very tough for almost anyone” to go before the IRB without legal counsel, she said. And it’ll be even harder for refugees who aren’t familiar with Canada and may not speak English.
Boyce said that in her experience, LGBTQ refugee claimants are especially scared of the immigration process.
“In many cases, they have never talked to anyone, except perhaps a partner, perhaps a family member, about their sexual orientation.”
And the IRB makes “unreasonable demands” of these people to prove that they are gay or trans, she said.
“Ultimately, these people will have to leave the country.”
“They’re not going to know how to do it … They may be so intimidated by the whole procedure or by the board member, they’re not going to make a good impression,” Boyce said.
“Ultimately, these people will have to leave the country.”
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney says the provincial government will fund legal aid for immigrants and refugees when they appear before provincial courts, but not the IRB because it’s run by the federal government.
“With respect to federal courts and tribunals, that’s the responsibility of the federal government,” she told HuffPost.
Mulroney’s government has been fighting the Trudeau government over costs associated with an influx of refugee claimants since taking power last summer. The PCs argue that the federal government should pay for all costs associated with the increase in migrants entering Canada at the U.S. border; the federal Liberals argue that immigration is a shared responsibility and Ontario’s government is stoking fear of migrants.
Mulroney asked the federal government for more money for refugees’ legal aid in a letter sent on a Friday, four days before Canada’s 2019 budget was unveiled.
“As you are aware, the costs of providing immigration and refugee services have increased significantly in Ontario over the last few years,” she told the federal ministers of justice, immigration, and finance.
She said the rising costs “are driven exclusively by changes in the federal government’s immigration and refugee policies” — but there haven’t been any changes to Canada’s immigration policy. The influx of refugees at the border began after U.S. President Donald Trump ended a program in his country that granted temporary protected status to migrants from countries that had experienced war or environmental disaster.
Asked for clarification, Mulroney’s spokesman Jesse Robichaud told HuffPost that she was generally referring to the fact that immigration is a federal responsibility.
The federal ministers didn’t respond to Mulroney’s letter or another one sent in May, Robichaud said. The only acknowledgement was a tweet by Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Robichaud noted that a report by Ontario’s auditor general found that the federal government only covered 39 per cent of Ontario’s costs for refugees’ and immigrants’ legal aid in the 2017/18 fiscal year. The report also found that the proportion of provincial money being used for those services jumped by almost 30 per cent between 2014/15 and 2017/18.
A spokeswoman for the federal justice minister wouldn’t say if Canada plans to pick up the tab for the slashed funding.
“We are deeply disappointed to see the sweeping cuts the Ford Government has made to this important program. While provinces and territories are responsible for the management of their individual legal aid programs, our Government recognizes the importance of working with partners to ensure proper funding for these programs,” Rachel Rappaport said by email.
“We are actively engaged in conversations with relevant stakeholders and will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Commock, the Torontonian who came as a refugee from Jamaica, said the cuts to legal aid go against what Canadians say they stand for.
He says he’s seen the impact of the program not just on his own life, but on the lives of thousands of refugees in Toronto. He now works at The 519 in newcomer services, helping immigrants and refugee claimants get settled.
“As a country, you say you are a welcoming people. You want people to come in, you want people to feel safe,” he said. “And now you’re cutting this. It made me feel you’re going against what you’re marketing yourself as.”
When he first heard about the Ontario government’s cuts, he thought about the other LGBTQ newcomers at The 519 who are alone in Canada and don’t know where to turn.
“What exactly are you expecting to happen with those people?”
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