The Trumplash

Sanctuary cities: Montreal and Ottawa lead emerging Canadian movement

Motions will be filed tomorrow in both cities, partly in response to Trump’s policies
Photo: Justin Henry

The whirlwind first weeks of the Trump administration, punctuated here in Canada by Quebec’s horrific mosque shooting, have been demoralizing for many. But as we learned in high school physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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Ricochet has learned that there are currently efforts in at least five major Canadian cities to transform them into “sanctuary cities,” a designation meaning that undocumented residents can access city services without fear of being reported or deported.

There are roughly 300 sanctuary cities, counties and states in the U.S., including New York and Washington, and President Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding for any jurisdiction that doesn’t cooperate with his stated plans to deport undocumented residents. 37 cities have stated or reaffirmed their intention to be sanctuary cities since the election.

There are currently four sanctuary cities in Canada: Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and, as of last week, London, Ontario. That number could double in the coming months, as Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon all discuss proposals to offer undocumented immigrants and refugees access without fear.

Montreal and Ottawa will both see motions submitted to their city councils tomorrow. If they pass, Canada’s three largest cities, and its capital, will proudly offer services to undocumented residents.

Call it the Canadian backlash.

Responding to Trump’s ban

While there appears to be little or no coordination between proponents of the idea in different parts of the country, what is common to advocates in all cities are the reasons they cite for taking this action now: The threat of Trump, his Muslim ban and a broader crackdown on immigration and refugees, and the act of terrorism committed in Quebec City.

“Trump really kicked it off. I see that executive order as a return to McCarthyism,” explained Donald Cuccioletta, president of the international NGO Alternatives. “Next we’ll be saying that we won’t let in people from countries where they have darker skin than we do. It’s a slippery slope.”

Cuccioletta recently co-authored an op-ed in Montreal daily Le Devoir advocating for Montreal to become a sanctuary city, and he sees in this moment a “crisis of conscience” that will spur civil society to action.

Last week, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre erroneously tweeted to the new U.S. president that Montreal was already a proud sanctuary city. It is not, but the mayor tweeted Saturday that Montreal would become a sanctuary city at the next city council meeting in February. His office has confirmed to Ricochet that a motion to make Montreal a sanctuary city will be introduced at tomorrow’s Executive Committee meeting.

At a press conference this afternoon, Coderre discussed the idea, saying that he wanted to send a message of solidarity, send the message that refugees are welcome in Montreal, and also send a message to the federal government that they should update the Safe Third-Country Agreement to reflect the growing policy differences between our two countries.

Coderre may soon have company on the sanctuary city bandwagon.

Controversial no more

Toronto was the first city in Canada to become a sanctuary city back in 2013, which at the time was a controversial proposition. Not so last Tuesday, when Toronto city council voted unanimously to reaffirm the city’s sanctuary status in the wake of the Trump travel ban.

In Ottawa, the nation’s capital, city councillor Catherine McKenney plans to introduce a motion Wednesday that would ensure undocumented residents have access to city services without fear of detention or deportation. A spokesperson for Ottawa mayor Jim Watson told Ricochet he would not be commenting until he saw the final text of the motion.

“This is a timely motion,” says Aditya Rao, an organizer with the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network, “because we’re seeing a rise in Islamophobia, in hateful rhetoric, both south of the border and in our own country, and I think a really effective way to counter it is to pass good legislation locally, because ultimately all politics are local.”

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, a rally was held last Friday to call for the city to adopt a sanctuary city policy. Mayor Brian Bowman remains non-committal, but has indicated he’s “open to the idea.”

In Regina and Saskatoon, community meetings have been called in the coming days to discuss the possibility of making Saskatchewan’s two largest cities sanctuaries as well.

All five initiatives appear to have arisen independently of each other, reflecting an emerging Canadian consensus on how cities handle undocumented immigrants. A consensus which stands diametrically opposed to the policies of the new Trump administration.

Sanctuary is easier said than done

Geoff Meggs is a city councillor in Vancouver, and a proponent of last year’s policy change in that city. He told Ricochet that Vancouver’s “access without fear” policy is a “powerful symbol of inclusion to the wider community, which is broadly supported” by city residents. Meggs, however, cautions that it isn’t a simple thing to do, and there are limits to a city’s power.

In Vancouver, city council passed the policy, and then asked all bodies funded by the city to adopt similar policies. So far the parks and library boards have done so, but the biggest challenge has been to see it adopted by the city’s police force, and discussions regarding implementation are still ongoing. The city has guidelines for police in how they work with people in the sex trade, and Meggs sees that as a loose model for what may emerge.

“Our police have been pretty clear. They would prefer that anyone with precarious status feel comfortable coming forward to the police to support public safety, and protect people in danger. However they do have relationships with the CBSA … and sorting through those issues has been complex.”

Meggs stresses that for a sanctuary city policy to have teeth it must include the police, and that’s why his city is working to find common ground with them.

In Ottawa, Rao argues that a feel-good, symbolic motion that does not include an implementation plan is worse than nothing because it may give undocumented people a false sense of security.

“It’s not enough to pass a symbolic motion. In fact, a symbolic motion could do more harm than good. We’re asking for an implementation strategy, we’re asking for a timeline, and we’re asking for a report back to the public. Access without fear cannot exist if the motion has no teeth.”

Rao underlines that the motion’s passage through city council is not assured, and that pressure from city residents on their elected councillors and mayor will be critical to seeing a meaningful resolution adopted.

Sanctuary cities are only the beginning

It’s all part of a frenzy of recent activity from those seeking to push back against the fear and hatred espoused by Trump and the alt-right internationally. Hate that finds its expression here in Canada in the words of tabloid pundits and demagogues, and ultimately in the actions of the white supremacist who killed six people on a cold January night in Quebec City.

In Montreal, a group of prominent Quebecers are planning a press conference Wednesday morning to relaunch the call for a provincial commission of inquiry into systemic racism. Premier Couillard has thus far resisted that call, arguing that such an inquiry is unnecessary. But the pressure may now prove to be more than he can bear.

Also on Wednesday, a coalition of Muslim groups are holding a press conference on Parliament Hill seeking action from all levels of government to combat Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and discrimination.

For Vancouver councillor Meggs, it’s reassuring to see the sanctuary city movement take off across Canada now — in the Trump era.

“It’s symptomatic of how broad the public support is for that approach, right across Canada, and it’s a reassuring sign about Canadians generally and their desire to affirm solidarity with people who are living in precarious and marginalized conditions in terms of their status.”

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