Volunteers sort donated items at the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Ottawa as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress collects items for humanitarian aid packages to send to Ukraine amid Russia's ongoing invasion, on Saturday, March 5, 2022. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress says it's concerned about the plan to support those fleeing to Canada from Ukraine because there is no plan to effectively track them once they arrive. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Connecting Ukrainians fleeing to Canada with community support could prove difficult

Connecting Ukrainians fleeing to Canada with community support could prove difficult

OTTAWA — The plan to settle thousands of Ukrainians in Canada so far appears to offer no effective means to keep track of new arrivals and connect them directly with community supports, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress says.

The federal government is expected to release more details soon about the plan to settle an unlimited number of Ukrainian nationals and their families in Canada.

Many of the people who arrive in Canada over the next weeks and months will be mothers and their children who left their homes weeks ago. Many won’t speak English or French, will have no contacts in Canada and very few resources, said Ihor Michalchyshyn, national executive director of the congress.

The government will have support services available at major airports beginning Friday to offer important arrival information to Ukrainians in their language, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced Monday.

In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Fraser’s office said that “welcome package” will include information about critical services such as mental health centres and instructions on how to get documentation like social insurance numbers and health cards.

As far as Michalchyshyn knows, that program will be voluntary and people could miss it, making it difficult for those arriving to access support from the government and community.

Without a registry of some kind, he wonders how community and settlement agencies will connect with the people who arrive. Only federal immigration officials will know specifically who is coming to Canada, he said.

As it is, volunteers with the congress are standing around at airports trying to stop people as they arrive to offer them help.

“We don’t even know when these people are coming,” he said in an interview. “Our institutions and community groups will pick up the pieces, but that is a very haphazard way to plan something for so many people.”

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 3.9 million people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries since Feb. 24.

The government opened applications on March 17 to allow those fleeing the Russian invasion to come to Canada for three years on a visitor visa while they decide whether to return home or apply for permanent residency.

Nearly 60,000 Ukrainians and their families have applied to the program so far.

Fraser says 12,000 Ukrainians who applied through other immigration channels have also arrived in Canada since January.

It’s a first-of-its-kind program in Canada, designed to help people fleeing war come to Canada quickly without making them formal refugees, and allowing them to work and study while they plan their next steps.

Formal refugee programs, however, come with built-in supports, including help to find housing and orientation to life in Canada.

Fraser told the House of Commons on Tuesday the government would extend settlement supports, including help finding a job, language training and other measures usually available to refugees, to Ukrainians who come to Canada.

“It’s not enough that they arrive, they have to be set up for success once they get to Canada,” he said in a question period exchange.

Michalchyshyn worries those services might be difficult for people to access without help.

“If you want to sponsor a family, or frankly, if you need help, it is very unclear how that is supposed to work from either end,” he said.

The government has created a central jobs board to connect companies looking to hire Ukrainians with people as they arrive.

Many Canadians have offered other kinds of help, in the form of funds, donated goods and offers to sponsor families, but there’s currently no mechanism to connect them with people in need, Michalchyshyn said.

The congress has also flagged that there are longer waits for emergency travel documents and biometrics, which could slow people’s ability to come to Canada.

Former Alberta immigration minister Thomas Lukaszuk agreed, but offered kudos to the federal government and staff working to bring Ukrainians to Canada as quickly as possible.

“Those are real problems that are not very easy to overcome, when you suddenly are dealing with a lot of individuals,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

He helped organize a chartered flight for 60 Ukrainians from Warsaw, Poland, to Edmonton, Alta., that arrived Monday evening. On Tuesday, the plane returned to the region with donated medical equipment, medicine and other life-saving supplies.

Many of those who stepped off the plane Monday had only a plastic shopping bag full of belongings with them, Lukaszuk said.

He said in Alberta, municipalities and the provincial government are working to make sure Ukrainian families have what they need when they arrive.

“This will never be an easy process. You’re looking at people who are traumatized. They went through hell, they left loved ones behind who are in the middle of a war zone, they mostly will not speak any English,” said Lukaszuk, who fled to Canada from Poland as a child 40 years ago.

“It’s difficult, but they will be fine.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press