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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

It's time to strengthen Toronto’s sanctuary city pledge

Mayor John Tory’s move to reaffirm our status as a sanctuary city was important and necessary — how Toronto walks the talk will be equally as critical.

Protesters have taken to the streets in Toronto over the past week to call for tolerance and denounce Donald Trump's travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Protesters have taken to the streets in Toronto over the past week to call for tolerance and denounce Donald Trump's travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

A confession: It’s a challenge to write about city issues these days.

Don’t get me wrong. Municipal politics is still my jam. But it’s hard to get fired up about property taxes when people are taking to the streets to fight for justice against the United States president and the news of the world feels so relentlessly dark.

But then, last week in the council chamber at Toronto city hall, I saw some light.

Mayor John Tory’s move to reaffirm Toronto’s status as a sanctuary city was important and necessary, demonstrating that municipal leaders still have an important role to play. His council motion spoke directly to those who seek to divide with fear and hate.

It said to hell with that.

In today’s world, where literal Nazis are somehow a thing again, this should not be taken for granted. Toronto’s status as a sanctuary city shouldn’t merely be reaffirmed. It should be strengthened.

There’s nothing controversial about this. Being a sanctuary city means only that those without documentation can access services without fear of deportation. It means people can go to shelters or call the fire department without worry that they might get kicked out of Canada.

That’s not radical. That’s just justice.

But our justice is fragile and incomplete. With Toronto’s status again reaffirmed, Tory and Council must now ensure this is more than just a label.

To start, strongly denounce those who do buy-in to the politics of division and racism. Tory’s refusal last week to cut ties with campaign strategist Nick Kouvalis – who until Thursday ran the xenophobic campaign of Kellie Leitch – was an affront.

Campaign strategist Nick Kouvalis, left, celebrates with John Tory on election night in 2014.

Torstar News Service

Campaign strategist Nick Kouvalis, left, celebrates with John Tory on election night in 2014.

The same goes for those on council who didn’t join with Tory in the sanctuary city vote, either through ignorance or absence. Those who don’t support sanctuary should be held to account.

Beyond that, let’s make sure these policies are working for vulnerable people.

A 2015 city report examining the aftermath of Toronto’s sanctuary city decision showed there’s still work to be done.

In particular, the report highlighted the Toronto Police Service as a place where access is falling short.

“An individual experiencing violence in Toronto may make a rational decision not to seek help because of a fear of being deported,” the report says.

That’s an alarming conclusion in a city that purports to provide sanctuary, and it speaks to the need to keep working at this – to go beyond affirmation and reaffirmation and focus on implementation.

Indeed, one of the lessons learned over the last year should be to avoid feeling smug or complacent about the affirmations, policies and institutions that are supposed to protect the spread of toxic politics. They are weak and porous and, if left unintended, they shatter.

Without vigilance, the light will go out.

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