News / Ottawa

Debate on sanctuary city designation comes to city hall

Members of the public were asked to weigh in on why a sanctuary city label is needed and what it would mean.

Aditya Rao (left) and Karen Cocq (centre) of the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network listen to delegates at the city's Protective Services Committee meeting on March 30, 2017.

Haley Ritchie / Metro Order this photo

Aditya Rao (left) and Karen Cocq (centre) of the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network listen to delegates at the city's Protective Services Committee meeting on March 30, 2017.

City councillors spent eight hours on Thursday debating what it would mean — and what it would cost – to designate Ottawa a “sanctuary city.”

In sanctuary cities, social-service providers are dissuaded from asking people about their immigration status. In practice, this can mean that frontline workers provide services without first asking for identification.

The idea of formalizing such a policy in Ottawa was proposed by Coun. Catherine McKenney, who didn’t bring forward an actual motion or dollar amount on Thursday, but offered an open-ended invitation for public input.

Faith leaders and frontline workers shared with councillors harrowing stories of undocumented immigrants facing abuse and uncertainty. Delegates suggested that some fear deportation when signing up for public pools, flu vaccines or library cards.

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“It needs to be made very explicit that people can access city services without fear of an issue based on their precarious immigration status,” said Leslie Emory of Refugee 613. 

Those councillors skeptical about the idea questioned how rational such fears are and how much power the city has to deal with them.

If a sanctuary city policy were adopted by council, it would apply only to city services. Provincial agencies, such as hospitals, would be unaffected.

Staff also noted that the city does not operate food banks or require immigration status for flu clinics.

One idea repeated during a number of presentations was training staff so that they know when and when not to ask a person for identification. Also suggested was a full review of the city’s current policies and better communication with immigrant communities to ease fears.

In final remarks, city councillors remained divided on the idea but thanked delegates for the discussion. 

Coun. Michael Qaqish, the city’s special liaison for refugees, said he wouldn’t support the designation.

“From what I’ve heard from staff, I don’t feel that a motion is required for people to feel safe and included in Ottawa,” he said. “I see no details or substantiated facts in the report before us today to change my view.”

McKenney said the city needs a well-promoted policy that the city won’t ask for immigration status, and staff need to be trained on the policy.

“I have to believe the stories we heard today,” she said. “When we have agencies that come to us and say ‘Look, people are afraid to access your services’ it may not be based on fact or experience, but we need to find a way to alleviate that fear."

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