IN THE NEWS ~ Plan for immigration hub in south Burnaby languishes as Vancouver's gears up

The plot of land in south Burnaby was intended to provide refuge for refugees and necessary services to recently arrived immigrants.

Instead, it stands vacant while over the border in Vancouver, the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. is building Welcome House, a large service hub for new arrivals.

In 2006, the City of Burnaby sent a delegation to Ottawa, offering to contribute 0.85 acres of land - which was valued at $2.4 million in 2005 - for an immigration hub in the city, according to a city staff report. In turn, the city asked that the federal government contribute $11.5 million for construction costs.

"The City of Burnaby was very, very generous in offering prime land in the heart of what is the most diverse area of the entire country," Burnaby-New Westminster MP Peter Julian said in a phone interview.

The Edmonds location would have been an ideal spot for such a project, he said.

"If you draw a line from the Fraser River down to Deer Lake, you've got 100 languages spoken in a very, very small area of territory," Julian said. "That's a level of diversity we don't see anywhere else in the country."

Constituents have said there aren't enough resources, such as English language programs, for immigrants, according to Julian, whose Sixth Street office is not far from the proposed site.

"There's no doubt the need is there," he said, adding it can be frustrating for people who have recently arrived in the area.

"They want to be up and running and contributing as much as possible, and yet, the services aren't necessarily there," he said.

But building such a facility in Burnaby would likely require a change of federal government, the New Democrat MP added.

"We just need a government that is smart enough to understand that this type of model would be very useful for the community," he said.

CONSERVATIVE CUTS

The Conservative government has cut many essential programs and services, Julian said, adding, "but at the same time, they're spending $40 billion on F35 fighter jets.

"Their priorities are very skewed," he said. "I think their priorities are very different from the priorities of very practical people in our community."

However, if the Conservatives are ousted in the 2015 election, things might be different, he added.

"I think a new government would be taking a really hard look to see if the City of Burnaby is still willing to make the contribution," Julian said. "I think that would be something a new government would take a real look at."

Coun. Sav Dhaliwal was one of the members of the four-person delegation that went to Ottawa in December 2006 to present the proposal for the multi-service hub to the federal standing committee on citizenship and immigration.

"That proposal - multi-service hub - was proposed as one-stop shopping for new immigrants and refugees to guide them in procuring services from the other two orders of government," Dhaliwal wrote in an email. "The Welcome House centre sounds something similar, but I have not seen any details."

The committee never responded to the offer, according to Dhaliwal.

NO COMMITTEE RESPONSE

"The committee appeared to have interest in the proposal, but nothing ever became of it," Dhaliwal wrote. "We never heard a word back from the committee. An opportunity to help new Canadians in transitioning to their new home was lost."

The spot at Edmonds Street and Canada Way was picked because of the high concentration of recent immigrants in that area, he added.

"The city chose that location for its proximity to Edmonds area, where most newcomers tended to settle," Dhaliwal wrote, adding the city had approached the provincial government to provide funding for services.

"I would think that the city's offer is off the table since so much time has passed," Dhaliwal added. "The planning department is developing a new plan for the Edmonds Street and Sixth Street corridor, and I expect the future of that piece of land will be a topic of discussion."

There are not any current plans for the property, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said late last year, noting it is next to the Edmonds Community Centre, where space is rented to non-profits that provide services for immigrants.

NO PLAN AT PRESENT

"Immigration Services is in that building, so is the Afghan Women's Co-op," he said, "So there's a bunch of services that we put into a building that we own now, where we're subsidizing the rent. We're hoping that, given our proven commitment, putting in something next door to that would make sense. So far, there hasn't been any options."

The other levels of government are needed to get major projects such as the hub off the ground, Corrigan said.

"We made a big pitch to try to get interest from the federal and provincial government, because the Edmonds area is such a multicultural area and it had a real influx of refugees, who we thought would be particularly well-served by a comprehensive hub of services. But we never got any uptake, even though we were offering up land; we never got any uptake from the federal or provincial government," he said. "It can be pretty frustrating - you're trying to get something going in your community and there just isn't a level of co-operation from senior government to be able to achieve it.

"I don't think I've seen a government like this one for purely political decisions," he added. "It's almost always based on their ridings, and whether or not there's an MP from their ridings, and whether or not they see there's an advantage politically to do whatever they're doing, as opposed to, where is the area that most needs support. That's what frustrates me."

In 2008, the federal government informed Burnaby that immigrant settlement services fell under the provincial government's jurisdiction, according to a Burnaby staff report.

IMMIGRANT HELP SHIFTED TO PROVINCE

"The government advised that it had transferred responsibility for immigrant settlement services to the province and furthermore, did not have a capital funding program that could cover the costs of the hub facility construction," the report stated.

Settlement funding is handled through the immigrant integration branch of the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills, according to Danielle Vlemmiks, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

Staff at the B.C. ministry were not aware of such a proposal when contacted, but said they would look into it.

The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. is expected to begin construction on the 74,000-square-foot Welcome House at 2610 Victoria Dr. this summer.

The plan for Welcome House includes 28 units of first- and second-stage housing, a health care clinic, refugee trauma support and treatment, child-minding space, a youth drop-in space for immigrants, a food bank, a community kitchen, a law clinic, a teaching facility, and offices for first language settlement support staff and society staff, according to a brochure released by the society last spring.

The society's CEO Patricia Woroch and director Chris Friesen did not respond to requests for an interview.

© Copyright (c) Burnaby Now

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