In the midst of a flood of Syrian refugees arriving in B.C. communities, including Surrey, a key service is under threat of shutting down due to lack of federal funding.
The Welcome Centre, which is run by the Surrey School District, processes newcomers arriving in Surrey and helps assess the needs of immigrants and refugees. Started in 2007, its 40 employees have up to 10,000 client contacts annually. Almost three-quarters of the staff are federally funded.
The newly elected federal Liberals have promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, with an estimated 800 to 1,000 coming to Surrey in the coming months.
The Welcome Centre, located at 7525 King George Blvd., will be crucial in helping manage that influx, observers say.
But the district says it will have to send out termination notices to staff by Jan. 30 unless it receives assurances from the federal government that $1.5 million in funding is coming.
The future of the Welcome Centre has been in question for some time. About 18 months ago, the federal Conservatives put the immigrant services out to open tender, which the Surrey School District subsequently won.
At the same time, funding had to be cut by about seven per cent annually because the Tories were going to slash some of the services, said Shawn Wilson, chair of the Surrey Board of Education.
The Surrey contract ends on May 1.
Due to conditions of the employment contract, the district has to give 90 days notice to Welcome Centre staff, meaning letters of termination will go out on Jan. 30 unless federal funding assurances are received.
“The door is closing here – we are required to do things here by collective agreement,” Wilson told The Leader Wednesday, adding the loss of the Welcome Centre would be a large impediment to the proper flow of refugee services in the city.
“The noose is tightening,” Wilson said.
In addition to ongoing federal support, the district is also asking for a bump in funding to hire extra personnel.
“Processing the new (Syrian) refugee children will be a much greater workload,” Wilson said. “We have no confirmation of a (funding) bump and we have no confirmation that the contract will be extended. If they’re going to put it out to tender, we’re going to issue layoff notices right away, because we don’t know whether we’ll win the tender or not.”
Ken Hardie, Liberal MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells, said he’s sent a letter to the federal minister responsible asking for bridge funding of three months so the Surrey district can properly bid on the work.
“The previous government set up a horizon for their funding that ended on April 30,” Hardie said.
He said he wants to assure services are continued and also that the Welcome Centre doesn’t lose valuable staff.
“As soon as you send out any kind of layoff notice, people are going to start looking for other work,” Hardie said. “Our principle we go forward on, whether it’s this or infrastructure, or anything else, is that the funding be reliable and predictable and you’re not staring down deadlines like the one they have here.”
As to the boost in funding for extra staff that the district is seeking, it poses more of a problem, Hardie said.
There are two other centres in Metro Vancouver (located in Vancouver and Coquitlam) offering similar services as the Welcome Centre. Still, many newcomers who are cycled through those locations often land in Surrey because of lower housing costs.
Hardie said he and the school district are on “the same page” and the services provided by the Welcome Centre are “really needed.”