Women's groups push for sanctuary city status for Ottawa

Twenty-five women's organizations have petitioned city council to make Ottawa a sanctuary city, but so far the issue has met with resistance from the mayor and city councillors.

Mayor Jim Watson says most of the emails he gets are against the idea

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

Women's groups are hoping to convince city council that Ottawa should join the growing list of Canadian municipalities designated as sanctuary cities.

A sanctuary city is one in which undocumented immigrants are not refused social services.

Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal and London, Ont., have passed motions in council to become sanctuaries.

The Ottawa Sanctuary City Network, a grassroots group including social service providers, lawyers and advocates, are calling on residents to write their councillors in support of a sanctuary city designation.

And on International Women's Day on Wednesday, a group of 25 women's organizations, representing services such as women's shelters, victims advocacy and immigration services, signed a petition calling on council to act.

"How many women don't pick up the phone and call the police when they need to because they fear what the response will be?" asked Leighann Burns, executive director of Harmony House, a shelter for women and girls.

"And if the city were to give out a clear message to women that you are welcome — you can call the police, you can call on any municipal service and you will get the help you need — I think that's an important message to people who really need to hear it."

Committee to discuss report March 30

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney brought up the idea in February but decided, after some consultation, to bring the issue before the community and protective services committee as a report. Speakers will be invited to discuss it March 30.

Among those against the idea is Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish, the city council's special liaison for refugees.

The motion was "a slap in the face" to what his office has already been doing, including working to settle more than 2,000 refugees over the last year, he said.

Protesters gather in Ottawa near the U.S. Embassy in January. Former MP Paul Dewar called on the city to declare itself a sanctuary for people seeking refuge. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, meanwhile, said he's received a lot of reaction against the idea.

"I know certainly from emails I've received, I think it's about 10 to one against the sanctuary city [designation]," he said.

"I'm generally inclined to help refugees, but not talk about helping refugees. That's always been my philosophy," added Watson, who doesn't think having the designation will add to what the city is already doing.

"We have a very proud history of welcoming and working with refugees and bringing them into the community."

Attitudes changing, McKenney says

But on Wednesday, McKenney said attitudes are changing.

"When the issue was first raised, I also received predominantly negative feedback," said McKenney. 

"It's only now when people are realizing that it is an issue — [now] that it's coming to committee, that it may not be successful — it has shifted completely. It's the opposite. I'm hearing mostly from people who are very supportive and much less from people who have had that negative reaction to something that, quite frankly, I don't think they understand."

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks to women gathered for International Women's Day at City Hall. He says he's hearing a from many people who are against the sanctuary city designation. (CBC News)
Still, she faces an uphill battle, with the mayor suggesting a strong preference for the status quo. 

"He's not so dogmatic that he can't change and I'm hoping that's the case here," said McKenney. She hopes the public delegations will help sway those unsure about the purpose of the sanctuary city designation.

"I think it's hard to ignore when front-line organizations who work with folks all day long tell us what's happening out there on the ground. I think it's pretty hard to ignore."

Is a sanctuary city a true sanctuary? 

One criticism of the move to adopt sanctuary city status is that it's mostly symbolic and doesn't carry legal status.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney will present the issue before the community and protective services committee March 30. (CBC)

Sanctuary cities were historically aimed at protecting undocumented migrants from deportation. However most Canadian cities have adopted a kind of "sanctuary light," which doesn't offer any new benefit, but educates city workers and signals to migrants through promotion that they are welcome to access services they've already been able to access.

Undocumented migrants would likely still not be able to get on a list for public housing, for instance, explains Burns.

More significantly, police services will continue to hand over migrants facing Canadian Border Services Agency warrants. 


Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said city councils can't tell police how to enforce the law, but that police chiefs across the country will be discussing the growing interest in sanctuary city status and how it might affect policing.

He clarified that police aren't in the business of checking people's documentation when they respond to calls unless the issue specifically comes up.

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau says chiefs across the country will be discussing the growing interest in sanctuary city status and how it affects policing.

"The primary responsibility for immigration issues is the Canadian Border Services Agency, and so police services don't really play an active role in looking for and actively enforcing immigration laws," Bordeleau said.

"When we deal with a victim of crime, our priority is not to ask their status with respect to immigration; it's to ensure that they're protected, that they're well served, that we deal with the issue at hand from a safety perspective.

"The only time when we ask the question, that the issue really comes up, is when we arrest somebody and their status becomes an issue, where we'll turn them over to CBSA."

Bordeleau said the issue is being debated at city councils across Canada, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is looking at whether to make a formal statement.