Sanctuary city designation fraught with legal pitfalls, lawyers warn

Lawyers with the City of Ottawa are raising a number of warnings over the legal implications of designating Ottawa a sanctuary city.

Report to be debated at March 30 committee meeting

Protesters gather in Ottawa near the U.S. Embassy in January, where former MP Paul Dewar called upon the City of Ottawa to declare itself a sanctuary for people seeking refuge. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Lawyers with the City of Ottawa are raising a number of warnings over the legal implications of designating Ottawa a sanctuary city.

A sanctuary city is one in which undocumented immigrants are not refused social services. The term has been adopted by some Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Hamilton.

Last month, Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney floated the idea of introducing a motion to council about adopting the designation, but instead opted to produce a report to be debated at the March 30 meeting of the community and protective services committee.

The report outlines information about sanctuary cities without specifically calling for the designation, but said that, based on public feedback, a motion to city council "is forthcoming."

It notes the sanctuary city designation means city service providers would adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to questions about a person's immigration status.

'Many of these people are fearful'

"People with precarious immigration status are living, working, raising families and paying taxes in Ottawa," the report states.

"Many of these people are fearful of accessing city services they are entitled to, or contacting police if they witness or are the victim of a crime.

"All Ottawa residents have an interest in ensuring that victims or witnesses of crimes can come forward to police without fear, and in ensuring universal access to fire services and public health immunization clinics."

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney originally intended to introduce a motion to council on designating Ottawa a sanctuary city, but instead chose to submit the report for discussion on March 30. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

The report notes that dozens of groups support the idea of Ottawa becoming a sanctuary city, including the United Church Presbytery, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, Ottawa Victim Services, Immigrant Women Services Ottawa, the Sexual Assault Network of Ottawa and Refugee 613.

City may be required to disclose information

But in a section on the report's legal implications, city lawyers note a number of potential legal roadblocks.

For one, a "don't tell" policy asking municipal workers not to share information about someone's legal status would still have to make an exception when the law requires them to do so.

"From a legal perspective, the ability to deliver certain municipal services may depend on compliance with applicable statutes, regulations and legal requirements as well as municipal policies and bylaws," the report's section on legal implications notes.

"The noncompliance by municipal employees with any applicable laws, legal requirements and municipal policies may result in legal challenges to municipal decisions or, in certain circumstances, an offence."

Lawyers also note that performing a comprehensive review to explore becoming a sanctuary city "would likely require the expenditure of funds for external legal counsel."

Police board, not council, place to debate police policies

Another issue, lawyers point out, is police: the committee and city council have no power to apply any of the policies of sanctuary cities to the Ottawa Police Service.

"Any policies respecting the implementation of a sanctuary city declaration involving the police force, including the consideration of any legal impediments, would remain within the jurisdiction of the Police Services Board," the report states.

The report also notes that when the Toronto Police Services Board was presented with the legal arguments for adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, they concluded police already did a sufficient job with regards to not asking about immigration status, and that as far as they were concerned, the policy was "not feasible."

These issues may be why some see sanctuary city status in Canada as mostly symbolic.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish, the city council's special liaison for refugees, have both come out against the designation, with Watson saying there is very little support for it.

But with the report now tabled, many public groups are expected to speak to the committee next week as delegates.

The Ottawa Sanctuary City Network said in a statement Thursday they welcomed the report as a "good first step."

Leighann Burns is the director of Harmony House, a shelter for women and girls, which is one of 25 women's organizations asking Ottawa city council to support a sanctuary city designation. (CBC News)