Day 6

Canadian cities are failing to deliver on the promise of being sanctuary cities

This week, Montreal declared itself a sanctuary city. It's the fifth city in Canada to do so. But according to Ryerson University Criminologist Graham Hudson, many of those cities aren't actually delivering on the promise, and an influx of asylum seekers from the United States could make it even tougher.
People gathered on Friday, February 3, 2017 in downtown Winnipeg to encourage Mayor Brian Bowman to make Winnipeg a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)
Listen9:55

by Brent Bambury

Since the beginning of the year, Emerson, Manitoba, population 689, has become famous as the place where more than 100 people trekked through the snow to enter Canada from the United States. Emerson is not a sanctuary city. But Winnipeg, 100 km to the north, where most of the asylum seekers who crossed at Emerson will eventually go to have their claims processed, is considering a motion to become one.

If Winnipeg joins Canada's other sanctuary cities — Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, London and Vancouver — it will be making a commitment to provide services to undocumented residents without putting them at risk of being deported. Should they encounter the police, their immigration status would not be an issue. They wouldn't be detained or reported to federal authorities, and they wouldn't be asked for proof of their status.

That, in theory, is the essence of the sanctuary movement. In practice though, there's evidence it isn't working in Canada. 

                         

Sanctuary in name only

Toronto has the longest history as a sanctuary city in Canada, and according to Graham Hudson, it is falling far short of delivering on that pledge. Graham Hudson is a professor of criminology at Ryerson University in Toronto and the co-author of a new report called (NO) Access T.O.

             

                

Hudson says Toronto's sanctuary initiative is underfunded, and has not been properly implemented.  

"There's been very little community outreach to let non-status migrants know that this policy is up and running," Hudson told me on CBC Day 6.  "And there's been very little public awareness raising to ensure that the public understands the rationale for the policy and supports it."

Hudson says the city's frontline staff need to be widely briefed to understand the terms of the policy, and that this isn't being done.

"There has been no systematic training beyond that of maybe 130 of the 60,000 city staff of Toronto."

An untrained frontline worker can have grave implications for an undocumented person. Loly Rico, a director at the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, shares a story about a mother and son who needed assistance at a shelter. 

"When they went to the interview at the shelter," Rico says "[the shelter staff] were telling the mother that if immigration appears, they have the obligation to report them, which is not true."

              

How will police respond?

The ultimate test of a functioning sanctuary city is the support of the police. I asked Hudson how receptive Toronto Police Services has been to the sanctuary movement.

'Not very receptive," he says.

"The Toronto Police Service has been engaging in an 'ask-and-tell' policy. They have very frequently been inquiring into the immigration status, either from victims or witnesses of crimes. Or if they've got that individual's name on file, they called CBSA [Canadian Border Services Agency,] or went to a warrant system to inquire into that person's status."

Family members from Somalia are helped into Canada by RCMP officers along the U.S.-Canada border near Hemmingford, Que., on Friday, February 17, 2017. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"And if it was determined that the individual in question did not have status — even if there was no federal arrest warrant in their name — that individual's information was handed over to federal authorities, who then would file a warrant and arrest that individual."

                             

Sanctuary under fire

In the U.S., there's broad popular support for authorities to do just that.

On January 25th, President Donald Trump signed an executive order instructing sanctuary cities and counties in the U.S. to uphold federal law or risk losing all funding from the federal government. Hudson admits it's putting pressure on the sanctuary movement.

"It is facing a very steep challenge," he says.

"You see the argument that the non-status or migrant community is dangerous because they can't be tracked. You also see the argument that the non-status migrant community don't play by the rules and therefore aren't deserving of compassion."

He says the greater danger is treating non-status people as criminals, because if an undocumented person fears that an encounter with the police will lead to detention or deportation, crimes will not be reported.

"In most situations, if a non-status migrant comes into contact with the police, it's because they are a victim of a crime or they are a witness to a crime. In fact, using the language of criminality to support the deportation of non-status migrants is counterproductive, because it means that victims and witnesses don't come forward. Crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished."

The Canada/U.S. border near Emerson, Manitoba. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

            

A coming conflict?

Critics say President Trump's executive order will be very hard to implement, and sets up a conflict between local and federal powers.

I asked Hudson if he expects standoffs between local and federal authorities.

"Absolutely," he says.

"And there's very little, right now, that we can look at to see who might win out in that competition. A couple of court cases have come up in the United States that settled the question of whether localities have the authority to issue regulations that touch upon immigration. In some cases, the courts have said they do. And in other cases, the courts have said that federal law trumps local law."

"In Canada, there is no such jurisprudence. We have a clean slate here. We just don't know what the answer to that question might be."               

                   

Cities like the symbolism

When Montreal voted this week to become the fifth sanctuary city in Canada, Mayor Denis Coderre directed this tweet to Donald Trump:

            

But it's not clear if Coderre, or any other mayor, is prepared for an increased stream of asylum seekers from the south.

So if Canadian cities don't have the resources to implement sanctuary policies, why are they so eager to proclaim them?

"Without question there is a symbolic component," Hudson says.

"It's an attempt to appeal to a popular sentiment that the policies of Donald Trump are backwards. And I think also, many people in city council recognize that the city has always drawn from their migrant population."

"They understand very well that the non-status migrant population are members of their community. They work. They pay provincial sales tax. They contribute economically. In many ways, they do play by the rules so to speak. They have families here and they are residents of the city."

"They belong here."