Francophone asylum seekers who are evicted from Quebec by bus are struggling to get medical care
The woman’s voice on the phone is regretful but hasty — she says she’s sorry, but if the French-speaking migrant can’t find anyone on the other end of the line to translate English, the doctor won’t need to see him for the medical check-up apply for asylum in Canada.
CBC News obtained a recording of the phone call the man says took place Wednesday in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“It’s not possible to talk to the doctor if you don’t speak English,” the woman tells him in French. “You need to find someone at your hotel to help you.”
“I don’t know anyone here,” replies Guirlin – whose last name CBC News wants to withhold due to his precarious immigration status.
Guirlin and his family are among more than 5,500 asylum seekers busted by the Canadian government from the Quebec-US border to Ontario cities including Windsor, Cornwall and Niagara Falls.
They are also among a number of people – mostly Francophones from Haiti or African countries – who were transferred against their will because they could not afford to find immediate housing. Her plan all along was to live in Quebec.
Guirlin, his wife, who is six months pregnant, and their four-year-old son landed in Niagara Falls on February 14. Originally from Haiti, the family was struggling to make ends meet in Brazil when they decided to travel north through a dozen countries to find their way to Canada.
Arriving via Roxham Road, the popular irregular border crossing south of Montreal, on February 11, immigration officials asked them where they wanted to live in Canada.
“I said we want to stay in Montreal because I don’t speak English and my wife doesn’t speak English either and she has to have doctor appointments because of her pregnancy,” Guirlin said in a phone interview Thursday.
He says that in the days that followed, they were told there was no place for them in Montreal and would be sent to Ontario. They got on a bus last Tuesday with around 40 other asylum seekers from several other countries. The government has housed them in a hotel for the time being.
Arrived at $45
Guirlin says he came to Canada with $45 after spending his life savings to bring his family to Canada. About $10 of that is left over. He had to buy a SIM card to make calls for appointments and had to pay to open a bank account, one of the first things newcomers to Canada have to do.
Upon arriving in Niagara Falls, Guirlin says he and his family were referred to Niagara Immigration Medical Center for their medical exams.
That’s when he had the exchange with the clerk who told him that the clinic couldn’t serve them if they didn’t have an interpreter.
Guirlin told CBC News there are people at the hotel who can translate English-Spanish but not English-French.
He has been helping another woman, Sarah, who doesn’t speak French, only Haitian Creole. She also requested that CBC News withhold her surname due to immigration issues.
Sarah had also written in her file that she wanted to live in Montreal with her two young children. She was hoping for support from the city’s Haitian community, one of the largest in North America.
They treat people like cattle and that is unacceptable. – Frantz André, lawyer for asylum seekers
Guirlin says his family and Sarahs aren’t the only Francophones at the hotel in their position, raising questions about Ontario’s willingness to help them.
“Service in French is a right for everyone in Canada,” said Bonaventure Otshudi, director of a local French-speaking health service center, the Center de Santé Communautaire Hamilton/Niagara.
Otshudi said his center had warned government officials that interpreters would be needed in the hotels that are hosting newcomers.
The federal government announced in early February that it had been moving asylum seekers from Quebec to other cities in Canada for months, after demands from the Quebec government for its services to go beyond borders.
Immigration advocates have criticized the move as a band-aid solution that could further harm migrants by introducing more instability into their lives and depriving them of the ability to choose where to live.
“There are people who are being taken from Texas to New York, from New York to Canada, and now they’re sending people everywhere,” said Frantz André, who helps Haitian asylum seekers settle in Montreal. Guirlin contacted him through a friend of a friend.
“I mean, they treat people like cattle and that’s unacceptable and it’s not right.”
André blames the Quebec government for its lack of flexibility in responding to the sharp increase in asylum seekers arriving in the province since 2021.
Prime Minister François Legault and his government have been criticized for comments about immigrants, including claiming that newcomers to the province are to blame for a slight decline in French spoken at home.
“The federal government is improvising under political pressure from François Legault. It’s purely political. This is now a humanitarian matter,” said André.
“I understand that resources are scarce … but that’s no reason to create additional stress.”
Guirlin’s family and Sarah and her two children shared a taxi to get to the clinic on Thursday. Guirlin says they took a chance and showed up even though they couldn’t find a translator.
After calls from André and two journalists, Guirlin said the staff there finally agreed to let him see the doctor. A member of staff who spoke some French helped translate.
According to André, a receptionist told him the clinic initially refused because they wanted to guarantee their 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 of the availability of bilingual doctors.
“IRCC is committed to providing services to applicants in Canada in the official language of their choice: English or French,” spokeswoman Remi Larivière said in a statement.
“We have more than 150 bilingual and French-speaking designated doctors across the country to facilitate applicants’ access to an appointment in the language of their choice.”
Larivière said the list of those doctors is available on the ministry’s website. This page mentions a francophone doctor in Niagara Falls.
Guirlin says he and Sarah feel on their own at the hotel with no government official to guide them in any way.
“[People here] don’t have patience to answer you if you don’t speak English,” he said, adding that he uses a translation app on his phone to communicate.
In the short time that Guirlin and Sarah have been in Niagara Falls, they’ve noticed that the area’s economy appears to be tourism-centric and that knowing English is key to finding a job.
“The way I look at it, I don’t think immigrants are welcome here,” Guirlin said. “It would be really complicated to be an immigrant in Niagara.”
If they wanted to go to Montreal, Guirlin and his wife were told that they would have to foot the bill for their own travel and would not be able to get a place in a hotel or government housing. They hope to find enough money for it as soon as possible.