News / Ottawa

Women's groups want Ottawa to be a sanctuary city

27 organizations sign onto letter asking Mayor Jim Watson and council to back move

Ottawa councillors are set to discuss declaring the city a sanctuary later this month.

Metro File

Ottawa councillors are set to discuss declaring the city a sanctuary later this month.

A coalition of women’s shelters, sexual assault centres , and other women’s groups are calling on the city to declare itself a sanctuary for immigrants

The 27 groups who signed onto the letter last week included the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, the Ottawa Coalition to end Violence Against women and several domestic violence shelters.

Keri Lewis, executive director of Nelson House, said they signed onto the letter — sent to Mayor Jim Watson and the rest of council — because immigration status is too often used as a threat.

“Often when women are experiencing abuse one of the things that are threatened by their abusers is that they will be deported,” she said. “It’s a common thing that I hear from women who come into the shelter.”

Lewis said Nelson House doesn’t inquire about immigration status and she’s had no reports of Ottawa Police ever questioning victims about their status either.

She said, unfortunately, the fear still remains.

“Women are already afraid and may not know their rights.”

Coun. Catherine McKenney raised the idea of declaring Ottawa a sanctuary last month. After some initial pushback from other councillors, council voted to study the idea with a report coming back at the end of March.

The proposal, which has been adopted by other Canadian cities, generally means a city will not inquire about immigration status to provide services and will not co-operate with deportation efforts.

Several American cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities, refusing to work with federal border agents in any deportation effort.

Catherine Macnab, executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, said her organization signed onto the effort because immigration status can also be used as a club against women seeking their help.

“We know there are partners who use coercive behaviours to force somebody to get pregnant, to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate a pregnancy,” she said.

She said if the city declared itself a sanctuary it would send a clear message to immigrant women that they’re safe to seek out sexual health care without fear of repercussions.

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