Should Winnipeg become a sanctuary city? Bowman says city may be welcoming enough

Designating Winnipeg a "sanctuary city" in the spirit of inclusivity seems like a good idea, but it may be unnecessary thanks to pre-existing commitments the city has made that already embrace newcomers, diversity and equality, Mayor Brian Bowman says.

City already engaged in efforts to make Winnipeg more inclusive, supportive of diversity, mayor says

Brian Bowman stopped short of saying he would adopt "sanctuary city" status for the city of Winnipeg, citing his current lack of familiarity with the concept. He said he remains open to the idea. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Designating Winnipeg a "sanctuary city" in the spirit of inclusivity seems like a good idea, but it may be unnecessary thanks to pre-existing commitments the city has made that already embrace newcomers, diversity and equality, Mayor Brian Bowman says.

Sanctuary status ensures residents with no documentation status have the same rights to city services as everyone else.

I am certainly open to having that discussion on sanctuary cities.- Brian Bowman

Some other cities have dropped the "sanctuary city" wording, but drafted policies to include some of the same rights and freedoms for asylum seekers, refugees or those with no immigration status.

The group No One is Illegal–Winnipeg hosted a "No Ban, No Wall" march Friday in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's temporary ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the U.S.

The group called on Bowman to adopt sanctuary city status for Winnipeg, as Hamilton, Toronto and other Canadian cities have.

Last spring, Vancouver city council unanimously approved an Access Without Fear policy that entitles undocumented immigrants to access health care and other municipal services without fear of being deported.

The Winnipeg group is part of a broad "migrant justice movement rooted in anti-colonial, anti-capitalism, ecological justice, Indigenous self-determination and anti-authoritarianism," according to its Facebook page.

Bowman's press secretary told the Canadian Press in a statement it isn't clear what kind of impact, if any, declaring Winnipeg a sanctuary city would have.

While he remains open to following in the footsteps of other cities, Bowman said the concept of sanctuary cities is new to him and he isn't ready yet to make a decision either way.

"Many of the things I've been able to identify in the sanctuary cities concept we're already doing, but can we do more? Let's have that discussion," Bowman said Friday.

Risk of deportation

Winnipeg has devoted considerable resources in recent years to revising its policies and building a culture of tolerance for refugees and people in the LGBT and Indigenous communities, Bowman says, citing Winnipeg's Year of Reconciliation and investment in frontline refugee initiatives as examples.

"We're going to keep looking for those opportunities to not just talk but act, and I am certainly open to having that discussion on sanctuary cities or anything else people think we should be looking at," he said.

Sanctuary status also generally means undocumented immigrants are protected from deportation should they come into contact with municipal police forces.

"The notion of a sanctuary city really isn't a concept I've heard floated in Canada before," Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said.

"Whenever we have files that involve any kind of immigration issue we deal with our partners at Canada Border [Services]."

Organizer glad mayor open to status

Hazim Ismail, an organizer with the No Ban, No Wall event, said he is glad Bowman is open to the idea of sanctuary city status. 

Ismail was born in Malaysia but had his refugee claim accepted in Winnipeg last April.

Hazim Ismail said he hopes Mayor Brian Bowman listens to and works with groups like No One is Illegal moving forward. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Refugees are often more vulnerable to being exploited by employers, Ismail says, and families often encounter challenges accessing health care for their kids.

Ismail was able to access counselling services early on after arriving in Winnipeg, but ran into trouble trying to obtain medical prescriptions for a condition known as borderline personality disorder before his claim was approved.

"It was hell … it was not a fun phase to be in as a refugee claimant."

For those Manitobans who believe undocumented migrants are a strain on the system, Ismail said it's important to remember how much countries around the world benefit daily from the work of financially exploited migrant labourers.

Walk for human rights

Bowman has organized a march of his own.

He said the tragic fatal shooting of six Muslim men in a Quebec mosque Sunday, paired with what is going on in U.S. politics right now, inspired him to organize the Winnipeg Walk for Human Rights on Saturday to bring Winnipeggers together.

"This is not a protest against any one or particular thing, it's really just demonstrating to the voices of division and hate that are in all communities … that we do embrace diversity and we're simply going to stand together in a united way," he said.

There are two kinds of politicians in the world, Bowman says: "Those who will exploit differences within a community and those who will do the heavy lifting and try and bring people together and build bridges.

"Winnipeggers have been doing that [heavy lifting] … and that's an ongoing thing we all need to be vigilant on. We need to speak up now more than ever on the values of diversity," Bowman said.

"We need to realize that silence is sometimes just as bad as joining the voices of hate."

The human rights march starts at The Forks at noon Saturday.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email

With files from Marcy Markusa, Bartley Kives, Nadia Kidwai and the Canadian Press


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