Refugees in Schools: Intersection of Municipal Law & Federal Obligations

To date, the Federal government has accepted 27,580 Syrian refugees into Canada through various government programs and private sponsorships. The processing of this volume of applications has been a monumental task. In meetings, the Deputy Minister described how they created a 24/7 processing machine, using their resources around the globe to increase efficiency and decrease processing times. These +27,500 refugees join the ~150,000 other refugees from other source countries. When they arrive, there is no doubt that they require significant settlement services and the children need access to education. This is where things can get messy. While the Federal government is clearly in charge of deciding who lands in Canada, the costs of settlement after the families arrive is divided between the feds, the provinces, the cities and other groups.

On June 14, the Calgary School Board demanded to be “reimbursed” for the cost of schooling the Syrian refugees in its system: CAD $2,600,000. The funds were used to provide “20 specialized classrooms, teachers, two psychologists, interpreters, English-language instructors and other educational assistants.” The Federal government announced that it would increase the funds available for resettlement to $335 million through the Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) service and the Calgary School Board clearly believes it is entitled to some of these funds. This funding announcement, however, does not mention any additional moneys for education.

The issue of education funding for refugees, and other non-status students, is not a new issue. In 2007, after many meetings and tragic cases, the Toronto District School Board adopted a policy across its system for “Students Without Legal Status in Canada.” This policy was welcomed by community groups and advocates and it has been used as a model for other school boards. Unfortunately, other school boards have not been as welcoming to refugees as the TDSB. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), in particular, refused to adopt a similar policy and this led to many tragic cases. While I was at the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples legal clinic, we worked with latin american students to find alternative education; however, as Catholics, they wanted their children educated within the TCDSB.

To keep the momentum from the 2007 TDSB policy, a group in Ontario produced a report in 2008: “Right to Learn: Access to Public Education for Non Status Immigrants”. The report outlined some of the issues and barriers of non-status students to get education in Canada. On the legal issue, the report takes a clear stand:

Access to public education for all children and youth under 18 in Ontario is both a right and a requirement under provincial law. The Ontario Education Act explicitly states that no child can be denied access to schools because they, or their parent(s), lack immigration status in Canada. While the law is clear, this study suggests that there are inconsistencies regarding enrollment procedures and other protocols in Toronto schools.

While I was on the Executive of the Toronto Refugee Affairs Council (TRAC) from 2008 to 2013, we regularly had issues with the Toronto Catholic School Board refusing to admit non-status students to their schools and they sought legal assistance. This became news in 2010 and the situation had not improved when I left Toronto in 2013. If you have current information, please leave a comment below.

On a national level, the residency requirements for education vary greatly across provinces. In Manitoba, for example, the Public Schools Act explicitly states that “resident pupils” include Canadian citizens and permanent residents and it does not include access to refugees or children without status. In practice, school boards generally allow students access once it is determined that they intend to reside in Canada permanently; however, the number of non-status children within each school has been a relatively small number.

Funding for settlement services is messy. The necessary services for refugees and other newcomers to Canada are not insignificant. In my experience, schools will generally allow children of refugees when they understand the circumstances and they absorb the costs. In the past, the numbers of children has been relatively small and has not been a big issue. With the 27,580 Syrian refugees and the response by the Calgary School Board, perhaps it is time for school boards across Canada will have to revisit this issue. My suggestion is that they review the recommendations from the 2008 report.

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