News / Vancouver

Surrey offers a ‘safe haven’ for persecuted writers-at-risk

City the third in North America to join 59-community network to become an International City of Refuge for artists fleeing threats.

Surrey Coun. Judy Villaneuve, co-chair of the city’s Local Immigrant Partnership committee, speaks in this 2014 file photo.

David P. Ball / Metro

Surrey Coun. Judy Villaneuve, co-chair of the city’s Local Immigrant Partnership committee, speaks in this 2014 file photo.

Surrey is poised to become Canada’s first official “City of Refuge” by sponsoring offering a haven to one writer or artist fleeing their country as part of a 59-city worldwide effort.

The move to bring one refugee to the city on a sort of artist-in-residence fellowship, with support from the city’s libraries, Simon Fraser University, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, will make B.C.’s fastest-growing municipality the third of its kind on the continent.

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The designation was announced Monday as part of the opening ceremonies of the three-day Creative City Conference in Surrey this week.

“We’d like to bring a writer at risk because of their work to come to Surrey — who needs refuge because in their country they’re not able to write freely,” explained Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, co-chair of the city’s Local Immigrant Partnership committee, and was herself long-involved in the Writers’ Union of Canada. “We want to be a beacon to other cities in Canada.

“It’s a part we can play in the international effort to promote the democratic process — and of people being able to be creative and express their opinions.”

The designation would be a way for Surrey to “send a message” that it’s a “welcoming and inclusive city” as well as to showcase its increased support for the arts, she added.

Surrey will become the third city in North America to join the International City of Refuge Network (ICORN), through which more than 120 artists under threat have already found safe haven — the others being Ithaca, New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The application to join the international initiative came about through the city’s cultural granting program, Villeneuve said, and was approved by ICORN at the end of August.

“More than 100 applications from persecuted writers and artists reach our ICORN office each year,” said the Norway-based network’s executive director, Helge Lunde, in a statement. “We are therefore delighted to have the first Canadian city … take concrete action to protect and promote human rights and freedom of expression.”

Surrey Coun. Vera LeFranc added that the city’s residents come from many places around the world, as illustrated by a City Hall installation involving 98 languages spoken in the city.

“It is already a refuge,” she told Metro in a phone interview. “Given that our population is made up of such diversity, how can we lead by example — to make our city even more welcoming to people who really need it?"

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