Skip to main content

Montreal city council passed a motion on Monday making it the latest Canadian jurisdiction to declare itself a sanctuary city.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

When Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre introduced a motion Monday to get the city to join a handful of other Canadian municipalities in declaring themselves as sanctuary cities, he left it to a committee to deal with the most challenging aspect – figuring how it would affect the local police.

The modern concept of municipal sanctuaries, which initially appeared in the United States as cities refused to co-operate with federal immigration authorities, has had different interpretations in Canada, mainly focusing on making it possible for undocumented migrants to receive services without fear of deportation.

Mr. Coderre said his proposal came as a result of U.S. President Donald Trump's restrictive immigration orders, which have been followed by a surge of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States.

Read more: Canada's border agencies shift staff to deal with illegal crossings

Related: Fearing Trump, asylum seekers travel across U.S.-Canada border, regardless of risks

Campbell Clark: A solution to Canada's refugee surge is no easy feat

"There are times when as a city you have to set the tone, assess what happens elsewhere and act accordingly," Mr. Coderre, a former federal immigration minister, told city council Monday.

The experiences in Toronto and Vancouver show that working out a protocol on how police deal with non-status migrants is tricky because officers are required to contact the Canada Border Services Agency if they become aware of someone's illegal status.

A recent study by criminologists at Ryerson University says that Toronto police have flagrantly ignored the new policy, a conclusion vehemently denied by the force's spokesman.

Police spokesman Mark Pugash said officers are instructed not to ask about immigration status unless it is relevant. He added, however, that he couldn't rule out that procedures weren't followed in some cases.

In Vancouver, while the city adopted a plan more than 10 months ago to make it easier for non-status immigrants to access services, the Vancouver Police Department has only now released a draft policy that is up for consultation.

"It hasn't been without its difficulties on the police side," Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs, a proponent of the access plan, said in an interview.

"The community wants the police to change their relationship with the CBSA and that poses real difficulties for the police."

While developing a new protocol for the police remains a work in progress, Mr. Meggs said Vancouver's move had a ripple effect and influenced other local administrative bodies.

He noted for example that Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health have drastically reduced the number of undocumented patients that they refer to CBSA.

"Leadership has an impact," Mr. Meggs said.

The changes in Vancouver were in part triggered by the 2014 death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican migrant who was stopped by transit police conducting a routine fare check on the SkyTrain rail system. She was referred to the CBSA, which took her into custody. She died by suicide while waiting for her deportation in an airport holding facility.

In the United States, scores of cities – including New York, Chicago and San Francisco – have declared that their police and jail officials won't automatically co-operate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Canada, cities such as Toronto and Vancouver have framed their initiatives as a way mainly to make municipal services more accessible to undocumented immigrants who would be reluctant to avail themselves of health and social programs for fear of being reported to border officials and deported.

"We're not trying to trump or change any immigration laws," Mr. Meggs said.

Advocates for the sanctuary movement argue that most non-status migrants took official routes to enter Canada in a legal fashion – as refugee claimants, temporary foreign workers, foreign students or visitors – but remained after losing their legal status.

Under the Canadian Constitution, the federal government has jurisdiction over naturalization and aliens, but cities deal with immigrants through an array of municipal services.

Four years ago, Toronto became the first city in Canada to adopt a plan to give access to city services to all residents, regardless of their immigration status.

Nevertheless, the Ryerson study says the policy, known as Access TO, has not been consistently applied.

"Access TO remains somewhat of a pilot project, with a rather small contingent of city staff championing the ideals of the policy in the face of steep challenges and powerful counter-influences," the study said.

In February, 2014, Hamilton became the second Canadian city to vote for a policy allowing non-status residents to get access to city services.

The move, however, remains a "gesture of goodwill," said Maria Antelo, community development co-ordinator at Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, who was involved in the campaign to get the city council's vote.

The crackdown in the United States has prompted a renewed interest in the idea, she said, noting that Ottawa and Edmonton have debated similar policies.

Three weeks ago, as Mr. Trump signed an executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries, council in London, Ont., unanimously supported a motion asking municipal staff to come up with the appropriate steps to ensure that "residents can expect access to service without fear."

In Montreal, drafting a new police protocol proposal will be the responsibility of the eight municipal politicians on the city's public-security committee.

The Montreal police declined to comment.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe