Ottawa: Sanctuary City? McKenney leads call for official status

New Year's Ottawa 2017067by Kathryn Hunt

Somerset Ward Councillor Catherine McKenney was expected to file a notice of motion at City Hall on February 8 to have Ottawa officially declared a “sanctuary city.” She has since chosen to hold off on filing it, stating that she plans to compile a report on the issue for presentation to a future meeting of the Community and Protective Services committee, to allow for public input.

Speaking to The BUZZ the day before she was due to file, Councillor McKenney said she wanted to take this step because many of her consituents had told her that they wanted to see the City take some concrete action to provide some security to residents of Ottawa who don’t have secure status or documents yet.

In support of the idea, former Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar wrote recently, “Simply put, a sanctuary city is a municipality that has adopted a policy of protecting and providing for all of its residents, regardless of their immigration status.”

The declaration would ensure that residents of Ottawa who have any doubts about their visa or immigration status would know that they can use City services without worrying that their immigration details will be collected, tracked or reported.

“If you just arrived as a refugee, if you’re appealing your status, if your work or student visa has expired, but you’re here through approved channels, you might be afraid to ask for City services because you don’t know if they will ask for your immigration status,” McKenney said.

Examples might be someone declining to get vaccinated at a City clinic, or even being reluctant to come forward to report a crime, she added.

Other Canadian cities have been taking the same steps: Toronto recently reaffirmed their policy, which has been in place for several years. Hamilton has also reaffirmed an existing policy, while London has just enacted one. Vancouver is also an official sanctuary city, and a motion was filed in Montreal the same day as McKenney’s motion in Ottawa: Montreal’s mayor has committed to implementing sanctuary status.

Supporters of the idea say that, especially in the current tense atmosphere around citizenship and immigration status in the wake of American policy changes, Ottawa and other Canadian municipalities should make a clear gesture of support for refugees and recent immigrants.

There are about 300 sanctuary cities, counties and states in the U.S., and 37 cities there have reaffirmed or declared their sanctuary status since the election in the face of threats of the loss of federal funding.

It goes further than a simple reaction to current events, though. “What’s happening south of the border has brought attention to the issue, but we always have people here who are without status for one reason or another,” McKenney said.

In an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen, Paul Dewar argued that becoming an official sanctuary city would benefit Ottawa by confirming the national and City policy on welcoming refugees, attracting new, international talent from around the world, and making a symbolic statement about Ottawa’s history as a place of safe passage.

“Ever since the Algonquin people made first contact with Europeans, Ottawa has been a city of safe passage and sanctuary. More recently, the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, and of course Syrian refugees in the last few years, has shaped and defined Ottawa. This track record is part of our city’s domestic and international brand,” he wrote.

There is certainly political will in Parliament to continue to bring refugees into Canada. Both opposition parties in Parliament recently pressed the government to lift the cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees. Organizations like Refugee613, Capital Welcomes, Ottawa Centre Refugee Action, and individual groups of sponsoring citizens like DOORS Ottawa (profiled in The BUZZ last year) have flourished.

In terms of procedure, the motion wouldn’t change much: City services generally don’t need to collect immigration information. But there is no firm directive for them not to do so, and residents might not be certain whether they will.

In fact, that’s the basis for some objections at City Hall. Mayor Watson questioned whether it would make any difference to the City’s treatment of refugees, and whether the City has authority to enact it at all.

The notice of motion has been withdrawn for now, but that provides an opportunity for public consultation.

“I do welcome discussion,” McKenney said, noting that there is a lot of misinformation about what a sanctuary city is, what the intent is, and what barriers people with uncertain status might face.

“These are not illegal immigrants,” she added. “They’re here legally; they’ve come through approved programs. They’re working, they’re taxpayers, they pay for City services.”