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Growing number of refugees arriving in Canada as unaccompanied minors





With a suitcase no bigger than a carry-on filled with what she describes as “tropical clothes,” Elisée Makola says she fled to Canada for safety.

Makola was just 15 when she left Congo, a country wracked by decades of violent conflict that has killed millions of civilians and displaced millions more. Children have been forced into prostitution, slave labour and military service for rebel groups, and she feared for her future.

“Mostly it was just being persecuted, being killed — because I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. So I was like, if there was a chance of me escaping that, I will take that chance.”

Refugees arriving in Canada as unaccompanied minors face the dual challenge of adapting to their new environment while also being children missing their parents.

Makola says she was separated from her family amid the unrest and violence in her country. She fled to neighbouring Zambia and from there made her way to Canada.

She landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport alone — a 17-year-old refugee claimant.

Growing problem

Longtime refugee advocate Anne Woolger says this is a relatively recent problem.

“I don’t remember seeing them back 30 years ago, period,” she said.

Now, she says, “some of them are coming … 15-, 16-,17-year-olds by themselves with no parents.”

They were coming from the same country, with same stories of persecution, torture, really heartbreaking.– Anne  Woolger , founder of Matthew House

According the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in 2016 Canada received 287 refugee claimants who were unaccompanied minors (under the age of 18 and without a legal guardian). In 2017, that number increased to 492. (There is no reliable data available for previous years.)

Most refugees arrive in Canada under sponsorship by government or private individuals, with a whole set of supports in place starting when they are greeted at the airport. They can get help finding housing, money for food, and guidance on adjusting to life in Canada. But the system isn’t set up to help those who arrive at the border unannounced. They have no one to greet them and nowhere to stay. Many end up on the street, helpless, Woolger says.

Matthew House founder Anne Woolger has been helping unaccompanied youth adjust to life alone in a new country by providing them with shelter, guidance and other resources. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“They were coming from the same country, with same stories of persecution, torture, really heartbreaking… [then] they were literally numbered among the homeless,” Woolger said. 

That idea of leaving such vulnerable people to potential danger and exploitation led Woolger to found Matthew House in Toronto.  

The home, run entirely by a network of volunteers, provides claimants a chance at a fresh start in a loving environment, Woolger says.

“[What] we want to do is create a safe home, a safe place where they could have a deep sense of belonging and a deep sense of community and just kind of like a real family.”

Access to shelter, resources

Since the first Matthew House opened in 1998, it has expanded to three houses in Toronto’s downtown.

Two of the homes are able to accommodate unaccompanied minors. Depending on how the rooms are arranged, they can take in anywhere between 12 and 14 refugee claimants.

Minors are provided a room in a fully furnished house where they can stay until they are ready to go off on their own.

Lawyers are available to help claimants prepare for their refugee hearings; they even hold mock trials, with translators provided if necessary.

If Matthew House was not there, it could be super hard for me to get where I am right now.– Khalid Sadiqi , former Matthew House resident

They also have guidance from what Woolger refers to as “house parents” — one or two volunteers who live in the home at any given time.

“They’re not telling them what to do, but they’re being resources for them, kind of helping to steer them in wise directions.”

Paul Zurbrigg is a longtime volunteer and fill-in ‘house parent’ at Matthew House. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It’s something they might not otherwise get as asylum-seekers, says longtime volunteer and fill-in house parent Paul Zurbrigg.

“Some night it might be sitting helping a kid with biology homework. Some night it might be talking over an issue that’s happening in somebody’s life. Some night it might be watching a movie together or playing PlayStation. It’s just hanging with these kids.”

The retired teacher of 31 years knows connecting with the kids is key and has seen the difference Matthew House is making in their lives.

“Now they are going on to higher education, they are contributing members of society,” Zurbrigg says.

‘It was not safe’

Matthew House and its residents are the only family that Khalid Sadiqi has known for the past three years.  

Sadiqi says he was 17 when he left Afghanistan in 2015, as the Taliban began to make significant territorial gains across the country.

“For a guy like me back home in Afghanistan, in Kabul,” he says, “it was not safe to stay there at all.”  

Sadiqi says he flew to the U.S., then took a bus from New York City to Buffalo and walked across the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls into Canada.

As the youngest of eight, Sadiqi says it was a tough decision to leave.

“It can be so challenging getting out from your country. It can be your language, the culture, how people live…. If Matthew House was not there, it could be super hard for me to get where I am right now.”

Now 20, Sadiqi has graduated high school, secured a full-time job at a restaurant and has plans to go back to study technology in college. He’s also transitioned out of Matthew House into an apartment with roommates.  

Khalid Sadiqi came to Canada from Afghanistan when he was 17. He considers the residents at Matthew House family. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The years without his family have been difficult, but the shared experience with people he met at Matthew House help fill the emptiness he sometimes feels, he says.

“It’s something like kind of you’re related. Like, back home you would visit your cousins’ place. Here, it feels like you have someone to visit, and that’s a great thing,” he said.

Woolger says Matthew House has built a support network over time.

“Over the years more and more Canadians have been volunteering with us and getting involved…. Sometimes we can even send someone temporarily to someone’s house … so there is kind of a growing network.”

The chores board at Matthew House. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Woolger says she doesn’t like to turn people away. “Whenever possible, we have an extra sofa bed in our main shelter where anyone that comes to our door that is desperate uses.”

When Makola arrived from Congo, there wasn’t room for her at Matthew House. If Woolger hadn’t cleared out the office space for her, Makola would have had to spend a third night in detention.

Makola, now 23, studies construction engineering technology at George Brown College in Toronto. She says the security and support Matthew House provided her has given her a chance she otherwise wouldn’t have had.

“I think I was in a dark place and then I see a light, a little bit of light — and that was Matthew house.”


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Dreessen: Ottawa has to shed its image as a town that doesn’t like fun





Ottawa has long held a reputation as a place that fun forgot. People who live here know that there is a lot to love about the city: its history, the Rideau Canal, proximity to parks and rivers, excellent clubs, museums and galleries all make Ottawa a great place.

More spontaneous fun things are harder to come by. We’ve created a process that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive and where the process is more important than the outcome.

In 2016, a local artist planned to give away free T-shirts celebrating Ottawa 2017 on Sparks Street, until the local Business Improvement Association (BIA) asked him to move, squashing a fun event to bring people together.

In 2017, business proposals to the NCC executive committee made a business case to open cafés at Remic Rapids, Confederation Park and Patterson Creek. In the summer of 2020, two opened; the Patterson Creek location, opposed by neighbours, has yet to see the light of day, though the NCC website indicates it may happen in 2021.

In each case, the cafés are only open for a few brief summer months. Despite the fact that Ottawa celebrates itself as a winter city, we can’t, somehow, imagine how people might want to enjoy a café in the spring or fall, or during winter months while skiing along the river or skating along the canal. Keeping public washrooms open, serving takeout and, yes, using patio heaters, could make these cafés fun additions to our city for most of the year.

More recently, Jerk on Wheels, a food truck with excellent Caribbean chicken and two locations, has run intro trouble. The one on Merivale Road continues, but the Bank Street location in Old Ottawa South has to close. According to social media posts from the owners, despite the business having all permissions in place, local restaurant franchises of Dairy Queen and Tim Hortons have objected to its presence.

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Ottawa businesses frustrated with slower pace of Ontario’s Roadmap to Reopen plan compared to other provinces





OTTAWA — As Canada plots its roadmap to reopening, each province is choosing their own path to reopen the economy and lift the COVID-19 restrictions.

Some are moving towards loosened restrictions at a faster pace than Ontario, which is frustrating for business owners who say they are ready to receive customers safely.

Patio season is upon the city, and at Banditos Restaurant on Bank Street, owner Matt Loudon is staging the large outdoor dining area to prepare for the summer rush. But the patio will have to remain closed until at least June 14, when it is expected Ontario will move into Step One of the three-step Roadmap to Reopen plan

“I hope they push it up a little bit,” says Loudon. “It’s beyond frustrating all the other provinces are opening up before us, we’ve been locked down longer than anybody else.”

Loudon, who owns two restaurants, says their outdoor seating has always been safe and that they have invested in added measures like sanitization stations and personal protective equipment for the staff. Indoor dining will continue to remain off limits in Ontario until Step Three. When patios do open, tables will be limited to four people. 

Unlike British Columbia’s four-pronged approach that began May 25. Residents in the province are now allowed to dine both inside and out, with a maximum of six per table, not restricted to one household.

Quebec will enter into its first step Friday, where outdoor dining will be available for two adults and their children, who can be from separate addresses per table. This applies to red and orange zones in the province. The curfew will also be lifted. 

In Gatineau, hair salons opened their doors to customers last week. Ten minutes away at Salon Bliss in Ottawa, all owner Sarah Cross can do is hope she can reopen sometime in July.

“Most people think that government funding covers all the bills but it’s far from it,” says Cross. Her upscale salon has nine chairs and over the course of the pandemic, in order to comply with regulations and keep staff and patrons, safe, only three chairs can now be filled. She says the hardest part is that the rules constantly change and vary in each region, adding it doesn’t make sense how one is better than the other.

“Our livelihood is dependent on what the decisions are made and if they were aligned with one belief system then I think they would have the trust of the public to follow these protocols.”

Many Ontario business owners say it’s not only a matter of necessity they open, but can do so safely. Infectious disease physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti agrees, and says the province needs to expedite its timeline.

“Especially with the fact that we are in the post vaccine era,” says Chakrabarti.

“It’s important for us to remember that we have been following this case count very closely for the last year and certainly we’ve had some experiences with opening things, especially with the second and third waves we have to remember that as we go forward now vaccines are a huge difference maker to the situation. Cases may go up but that doesn’t mean the most important thing will go up which is hospitalizations.”

Chakrabarti says while people will still get infected with COVID-19, with the reduced risk of hospitalization in large numbers there is no reason to restrict the community. He says while it’s not time for packed stadiums, it’s also not time for lockdowns and Ontario should re-think its strategy.

“We have to faith in the vaccines. We have seen in the other parts of the world like Israel, the U.K.,and the U.S. our neighbours to the south,” says Chakrabarti. “They are very safe and effective and our ticket out of this pandemic. We really should be taking that.”

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$2.9 million tax break for Ottawa Porsche dealership receives the green ligh





OTTAWA — Ottawa city council has given the green light to a $2.9 million tax break for a new Porsche dealership in Vanier.

Council voted 15 to 9 to approve a grant under the Community Improvement Plan initiative to build a Porsche dealership at the corner of Montreal Road and St. Laurent Boulevard.  The project by Mrak Holdings Inc., a.k.a. Mark Motors of Ottawa, would be built at 458 Montreal Road.

Under the Community Improvement Plan approved by Council, business owners can apply for a grant equal to 75 per cent of the municipal tax increase attributable to the redevelopment. A report says the goal of the Montreal Road Community Improvement Plan is to “stimulate business investment, urban renewal and property upgrades in the area.”

Coun. Catherine McKenney was one of nine councillors who opposed the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“I agree with the Community Improvement Plan, but I know and what people see here is that this application does not meet the criteria,” said McKenney about the CIP proposal for the Porsche dealership.

“A car dealership, no matter whether it’s Honda, or a Porsche or a Volkswagen, it does not first off belong on a traditional main street. This does not the meet the criteria of a CIP, it will do nothing for urban renewal.”

Approximately 70 people gathered at the site of the proposed Porsche dealership Tuesday evening to oppose the tax grant.

Coun. Diane Deans told Council she doubted any councillors who supported the Community Improvement Plan when it was developed in 2019 thought it would support a luxury car dealership.

“I don’t think it fits. I don’t think a clear case has been made that this incentive is required for the Mark Motors project to move forward at all,” said Deans. “I don’t believe there’s a clear community benefit.”

Coun. Riley Brockington, Deans, Jeff Leiper, Carol Anne Meehan, Rick Chiarelli, Theresa Kavanagh, Keith Egli, McKenney and Shawn Menard voted against the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“It will lead to a $17 million investment on Montreal Road, it will create about 20 jobs in that neigthborhood,” said Mayor Jim Watson.

Watson noted auto dealerships were not excluded from the Community Improvement Plan when approved by committee and Council.

A motion introduced by Watson was approved to use property tax revenue generated by the redevelopment for affordable housing.

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