Canada's sanctuary cities offer some protection, but benefits are limited

Toronto declared itself a sanctuary city in 2014. It reaffirmed the promise given the new U.S. administration’s recent moves. Photo from The Canadian Press

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took power and signed executive orders to limit immigration, Sanctuary Health in Vancouver is seeing an uptick in people crossing the border into Canada.

“In the last two weeks we have received more [undocumented] families from the States,” Byron Cruz, who works with the advocacy group for undocumented people and migrant workers, told Yahoo Canada News.

At the same time, Toronto reaffirmed its status as a “sanctuary city,” one open to those of any status in Canada — including undocumented.

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But the protection any one city can offer to undocumented people in Canada is limited without provincial and federal policy changes, Cruz says.

“We are talking about helping people who are being persecuted in the United States, but we have to think about our own problems here,” Cruz said.

What is a sanctuary city?

The term “sanctuary city” means different things in different countries, Harald Bauder, director of the graduate program in immigrant and settlement studies at Ryerson University, told Yahoo Canada News.

In the U.S. there’s a strong legal component to sanctuary status, while in the U.K there’s largely no legal component.

“In Canada it’s a bit of a hybrid,” Bauder said. Some cities, like Toronto, have made “a very clear commitment” to making undocumented people part of the community, he said.

This means open access to city services like libraries and recreation programs with just proof of residence, such as a pay stub or utility bill.

It’s unclear how many undocumented people are living in Canada and there are no official statistics. Estimates range from about 50,000 to as many as 200,000. Some experts have predicted those numbers could rise as the U.S. restricts immigrants and refugees and attempts to deport undocumented people.

“That’s a big problem, that we don’t know how many there are,” Bauder said. “But we know that it’s a significant number, and they are here, and they are our neighbours.”

Canada’s sanctuary cities

As of now Canada has two so-called sanctuary cities: Toronto and Hamilton, both in Ontario. City councils in Ottawa and London, Ont., are also seeking the status. Vancouver offers similar services and protections, but stops short of calling itself a “sanctuary city” in recognition of its jurisdictional limitations. The city prefers to dub its policy “access without fear.”

Some Vancouver services have adopted access without fear despite the fact the city’s policy doesn’t compel them to do so, including the public school board.

But Vancouver cannot truly call itself a sanctuary city without cooperation from its police force, which is currently not included in the policy of access without fear, Cruz said.

Local police forces report to Canada Border Services on status enforcement and he says that Sanctuary Health doesn’t currently feel they can assume that local police will shield undocumented people.

This is an important distinction between cities in Canada and the United States. Police in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco don’t consider immigration laws as part of their mandate, Cruz said.

And while being a sanctuary city does offer benefits to undocumented residents, there are limits.

“In a person’s everyday life the city only does so much,” Bauder said. Issuing health cards or driver’s licences are the jurisdiction of the province, for example.

Wider provincial and federal action is needed, Cruz says, particularly if predictions about increased numbers of undocumented people coming to Canada because of American policies are correct.

After all, families who were in the United States considered that a safe country, he said, until about a week ago.