What is a sanctuary city anyway?

Ottawa has joined the list of Canadian municipalities considering sanctuary city status — but not everyone’s clear on what that means
By Kate Heartfield - Published on Mar 29, 2017
Demonstrators push for Winnipeg to designate itself a sanctuary city in February 2017. (John Woods/CP)



Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January — and his first attempt at implementing a Muslim travel ban shortly thereafter — a number of municipalities across Canada have considered declaring themselves so-called sanctuary cities.

London’s and Montreal’s councils both passed motions in favour of the idea in the early months of 2017. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has even called for Ontario to become a “sanctuary province,” an idea she connected directly to Trump’s controversial policies and the resultant increase in refugees crossing into Canada. Federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, conversely, has vowed to withhold transit funding from sanctuary cities if she becomes prime minister.

At Ottawa city hall, Councillor Catherine McKenney is pushing for the capital to designate itself a sanctuary city, but she's held off on presenting a motion to that end, to give everyone time to learn what the concept actually means — and what it doesn’t.

Although it’s getting more attention now, the sanctuary city concept predates Trump’s election, and is intended to serve a much broader population than the asylum seekers now fleeing the U.S. for Canada. Toronto declared itself a sanctuary city in 2013, and Hamilton and Vancouver passed similar motions soon after.

In Canada, at least, sanctuary status has no bearing on whether a refugee can be detained or deported. The Canada Border Services Agency still enforces immigration law in sanctuary cities, and status doesn’t change the laws governing any police force. Status is also not an invitation; it may well have no impact on the number of immigrants or refugees, documented or otherwise.

So what’s the difference? In sanctuary cities, municipal services from public health to libraries instruct their staff not to ask people about their immigration status. Councils may ask municipal police boards to develop similar policies; these vary from city to city and from force to force, but the idea is to make sure someone can call 9-1-1 without worrying that they’ll be deported if they do.

(It’s worth noting that the term “sanctuary city” itself has become contentious, so some cities have taken to calling their policies “access without fear” or giving them other, more politically palatable names instead.)

There’s been some local public outcry since the Ottawa Citizen first reported on February 1 that city councillors were looking into the concept. Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Michael Qaqish both expressed skepticism.

“My parents immigrated here from Jordan, from the Middle East, in the ’80s,” Qaqish says in a phone interview. “They went through the process and the bureaucracy that they had to go through, the wait and the money that they had to spend, and all that. I think most people that are here expect people to respect the rules and legislation that we have, and that’s federal.”

Qaqish says he’s keeping an open mind but notes that Ottawa has already demonstrated compassion through its recent work welcoming Syrian refugees. He wonders whether it’s really the city’s job to develop its own illegal-immigration policies.

But McKenney says, “That’s my point exactly: we should not be doing federal immigration’s job for them.” When a worker from Ottawa Public Health interacts with a child who needs a vaccination, for example, all that should matter is whether that child is a resident.

Qaqish counters that it isn’t current city practice to ask about immigration status (although there’s no policy that explicitly forbids asking). “We never do that,” he says. “Public health, or OC Transpo, or parks and recreational service — we never do that.”

But if city workers don’t inquire about immigration status anyway, why not make it official policy?

McKenney says doing so would ensure that staff know the rules and follow them consistently. It would also allow Ottawa to communicate the policy to illegal immigrants who may be avoiding city services out of fear. On March 30, she’ll deliver a report (available now on the city website) to the community and protective services committee on what sanctuary status could mean for Ottawa. If a motion comes, it’ll be after that date.


On March 8, several Ottawa womens’ organizations, including shelters and rape crisis centres, sent an open letter to the mayor and city council. “Some of the women we work with and/or their family members have precarious immigration status and as a result, they often do not access the city services and supports they need for fear that information about their immigration status might be shared with immigration enforcement and put them at risk of detention or deportation,” the letter reads. “This can include not accessing women’s shelters, counselling services, public health services, food banks, emergency services, city recreation programs, and even public transit.”

While the term “sanctuary city” may conjure images of undocumented migrants evading authorities and living underground, University of Ottawa criminology professor David Moffette says the more typical Canadian case is someone who came here legally — on a student or temporary work permit, say — but whose status has lapsed for some reason. In many cases, the migrants in question are taxpayers.

“Even if you rent and you don’t own a house, your landlord pays municipal taxes, and you’re basically the one paying it through your landlord. And people pay sales taxes,” Moffette explains. “People who are in and out of status might also have been paying income taxes.”

Nobody really knows how many illegal immigrants Ottawa harbours, but a sanctuary-city designation — by whatever name you want to call it  — could make these invisible people a little more visible. And if Toronto’s experience is any indication, the only appreciable cost is in training staff and communicating the policy to the public.

Critics contend that sanctuary-city designation amounts to little more than empty rhetoric, political grandstanding. But advocates say what matters — much more than the declaration itself — is how that rhetoric translates into policy.

Moffette co-authored a 2015 study about Toronto’s policy for the advocacy group No One Is Illegal; it suggested that Toronto police were still performing frequent immigration status checks. A recent report from researchers at Ryerson University suggests implementation of the city's policy has been inconsistent. Frontline staff members still don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the rules — and neither do many of the residents they’re trying to serve.

McKenney says it would be better to have no sanctuary policy than to have one that was all talk and no action.

“It cannot be just a symbolic gesture,” she says. “The policies have to be there. The training has to be there for anyone on the front line. Otherwise, it’s a trap. Otherwise, it’s telling people that they can access services without fear, and they can’t. So the lesson for us going forward, if we adopt a sanctuary policy, is that the policy itself has to be substantive.”

Kate Heartfield is an Ottawa-based writer.

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