Ali Saeed is swamped. People seeking asylum in Canada are contacting him daily for help with forms, a place to stay and information.
The human-rights advocate is a former political prisoner and refugee from Ethiopia. Since coming to Canada in the 1980s, he’s sponsored more than 100 people. He has been volunteering with newcomer services for three decades and has earned a reputation as someone in Winnipeg who can be counted on to help.
In the past, people could file refugee claims and begin to get accustomed to Canadian culture through Welcome Place, a residence and service provider for asylum seekers on Bannatyne Avenue.
But Welcome Place has been slow to return calls lately, leaving many people feeling abandoned, Saeed said.
"They have to change their name," he said. "I would call it Unwelcome Place…. You leave a message, you don’t get an answer."
Some of the people looking for help — many of whom are Ethiopian and Syrian women — turn to Saeed because they don't know what else to do, he said.
Saeed is well-acquainted with helping refugees, and he does a lot of it. But, he’s frustrated with Welcome Place’s opaqueness and inability to provide the services it’s supposed to offer.
"If I was an organization, that’s fine," he said. "I’m not an organization. I’m an individual, (and I’m) working every day to bring the bread (to) the table."
The agency has only a quarter of the staff it had three years ago. There are 11 unionized employees now, compared to the more than 40 there in 2019.
"This is an organization that has had struggles with funding, primarily from the federal government, stemming back to 2019," said Scott Clark, a national representative for CUPE, the union representing Welcome Place staff.
In 2019, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada rejected Welcome Place’s Resettlement Assistance Program funding proposal. The money made up one-third of its budget.
"A move (by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council) to lock out their staff for three months and prevent services to be provided to their clients… that would give (the federal government more reason) to not give funding to this organization." ‐ Scott Clark, a national representative for CUPE
There’s no apparent reason for the contract loss, Clark said, but the funding went to St. Boniface-based Accueil francophone, an agency that provides assistance to francophone and allophone immigrants and refugees.
Since then there has been a great deal of change and staff reshuffling at Welcome Place.
In early 2020, it laid off its roughly 40 staff members and then recalled half of them. It switched its executive director. There were changes to workers’ benefits, including reduced vacation and paid time off, Clark said.
"(They had) far more concessions than we have ever experienced in CUPE in recent memory," he said.
The union accepted the layoffs and salary cuts but fought back on the other changes. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic halted most refugee intake, along with regular fundraising opportunities.
In April, workers were locked out when CUPE and the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which runs Welcome Place, couldn’t come to an agreement. Staff had been without a contract for more than 13 months.
In July, the two sides went to arbitration and, while some employees returned to work, others had quit, Clark said.
"A move (by the MIIC) to lock out their staff for three months and prevent services to be provided to their clients… that would give (the federal government more reason) to not give funding to this organization," he said.
In August, Welcome Place laid off another seven staff, he said. The dispute went to the Manitoba Labour Board on Sept. 16; last Wednesday, the board decided against most concessions, including reduced vacation and paid time off, among other things, Clark said.
"(The MIIC) were proposing things that did not have any clear connection to funding problems," Clark said. "(The) attention needs to turn back to the employer and (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) to get their act together and figure out what it is they need to do to get ongoing programming."
Shane Henderson, the MIIC's executive director, expressed disappointment over the labour board's decision.
"The result will create continued difficulty for the organization moving forward," he wrote in an email. "However, we remain committed to our processes and will continue to endeavour to keep the organization operating as a going concern, until such time as it is no longer feasible."
The MIIC will focus on the future, he said.
"We hope that we can continue our work to provide much needed and important services to our clients," he said.
It’s unclear what staff are being assigned to, given the funding cuts, Clark said.
"It is our expectation that the staff reduction was intended to align with the current level of client services," he wrote in an email.
Welcome Place receives funding from the IRCC, the province, United Way Winnipeg and individual donors, according to its 2019-2020 report.
University of Manitoba law students volunteer there, helping asylum seekers with the process and providing legal information.
This year, two students are participating, but that number could easily increase, according to Kevin Tabachnick, a co-ordinator for the Manitoba chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada, which pairs students with the program.
"The more people that need the services, the more law students we can give," Tabachnick said, adding that six or seven law students would volunteer per year in the past.
"It’s an uncomfortable time for all agencies that are attempting to rescue refugees," said Tom Denton, former executive director for the International Centre of Winnipeg (now called Immigrant Centre Manitoba), and someone who used to work closely with Welcome Place.
The pandemic has tightened already squeezed funding opportunities, he said.
"It’s been a weakened program for the last couple years," he said.
Saeed just wants to see more staff at Welcome Place, as soon as possible.
"We are suffering," he said.
CUPE has a campaign on its website where people can write to Ottawa’s immigration minister to call for more funding to Welcome Place.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.