McKenney postpones sanctuary proposal

By Selene Tan

Ottawa won’t be a sanctuary city quite yet.

Despite initial plans to move quickly to seek the refugee- and immigrant-friendly status for the city, Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney stopped short of proposing the sanctuary motion at council, agreeing to weeks of delay to allow more debate and public consultation on the matter.

The issue will now be discussed at a community and protective services committee meeting at the end of March.  McKenney is expected to present a report on the “sanctuary city” idea at that meeting. The councillor could not be reached for comment.

The term “sanctuary city” has been used for cities in the U.S. that adopt special measures to protect foreigners without a legal right to be in the country by limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In Canada, a sanctuary city would “basically mean that undocumented individuals will have access to municipal services without being queried as to their immigration status,” said Leslie Emory, executive director of Ottawa Community Immigrant Services. “They will have as much access (to city services) as any other residents of Ottawa.”

Toronto, Vancouver, Hamilton and London were already sanctuary cities when McKenney raised the issue earlier this month. On Feb. 20, Montreal city council voted unanimously to join the list.

Aditya Rao, an organizer with Ottawa Sanctuary City Network, said the discussion is happening at a “timely moment,” in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. The ban was overturned by U.S. courts, but Trump has said  he will find a way to reinstate the measure.

Concerns in the U.S. about the status of undocumented foreigners has recently prompted a number of illegal migrants to make dangerous U.S.-Canada border crossings in freezing temperatures into southern Manitoba.

“We’re seeing a lot of hate and intolerance and language that is very concerning both from the south of the border but also from within Canada, as well with the recent shooting in Quebec and so on,” said Rao, referring to the deadly Jan. 29  attack on a Quebec City mosque.

“By declaring Ottawa as a sanctuary city, what we would be saying is that everybody is welcomed,” Rao said.

“Ottawa already has a reputation for being a welcoming city, this is one step further that we can take to really solidify that.”

Emory said she was also happy that the discussion was starting now.

“I think it’s very important how it’s going to unfold in terms of what’s best for Ottawa, which remains to be seen . . . I definitely think it’s something that Ottawa needs to be doing,” she said.

Howard Duncan, the executive head of Metropolis, an international network of immigration policy-makers and researchers based at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said he was skeptical about the necessity of making Ottawa a sanctuary city.

“I have no problems with being a welcoming city,” Duncan said. “To declare yourself to be a sanctuary city does mean that you’re willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience against the federal or provincial authorities.”

“Unless we have a broad base support for that, especially around council and especially with the mayor, this is going to go nowhere,” he said.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has said he is opposed to declaring Ottawa a sanctuary city because it’s an unnecessary “solution looking for a problem” that has never arisen, and that multicultural Canada’s treatment of immigrants and refugees is different than what’s currently happening in the United States.

There are four metropolitan areas in Canada that have declared themselves sanctuary cities: Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and Hamilton. A few other places, such as Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina, are also considering adopting sanctuary city status.