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Grassroots migrant justice groups organizing in response

This article originally appeared on and

The racist and exclusionary policies being implemented by the Trump administration have triggered a slow wave of interest in “sanctuary city” status across Canada. Grassroots migrant justice organizers are raising concerns and seeking to centre migrant voices and actions in response.

Becoming a “sanctuary city” roughly means that refugees and non-status migrants have safe access to essential services like healthcare, education and social services. It means that non-status migrants can visit hospitals or be pulled over by police without fear of being reported to border or immigration authorities for deportation.

As an increasing number of cities across Canada consider adopting “sanctuary city” declarations that claim to welcome refugees and undocumented migrants, problems are emerging because deportations persist and basic public services to non-status migrants are not being provided.

“Trump comes into the picture and a series of mayors and city councils across the country are trying to quickly differentiate themselves from him,” said Syed Hussan, a member of No One is Illegal-Toronto (NOII-Toronto). “The way that it’s being done in many places is entirely unthoughtful and it's imperative that grassroots groups get involved and direct the process.”


"As an increasing number of cities across Canada consider adopting “sanctuary city” declarations that claim to welcome refugees and undocumented migrants, problems are emerging because deportations persist and basic public services to non-status migrants are not being provided."


Canadian cities including Fredericton, London, Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon and others are at various stages of considering or adopting “sanctuary city” declarations or policies, with others likely to follow suit. The way that grassroots organizers respond to this wave is important.


Some mayors and councillors are racing to declare “sanctuary city” status for opportunistic reasons to appear liberal and accepting, but this is causing problems of its own.

Montreal mayor Denis Coderre posted a message on Twitter to Donald Trump on January 31, 2017: “Message to Donald Trump. Montreal proud ‘Sanctuary City.’ Newcomers & refugees are welcome. Diversity is our strength and part of our DNA.” There was one problem with this tweet: Montreal was not a sanctuary city. They mayor’s tweet was disseminated widely in mainstream media and give the false impression that refugees are safe from deportation in Montreal. Nearly a month after the tweet, Montreal’s city council declared the metropolis a “sanctuary city” in a motion moved by the mayor on February 20. Mainstream media again reported that Montreal had become a sanctuary city that welcomed refugees, but deportations are still taking place.

“They should have called it a motion to look into better accesses for services for refugees, or a motion to discuss the possibility of making Montreal a sanctuary city,” said Jaggi Singh, an organizer with a Montreal-based migrant justice network called Solidarity Across Borders. “It’s irresponsible because it gives the false impression that the city is providing protection and safety.”

Jaggi said their organization began receiving calls from people they support shortly after the city’s declaration.

“People we support are either confused about what the declaration means (and very disappointed when they realize it does not mean access to health care, education or official work) and in a few cases, were wondering if they should present themselves to immigration authorities to get regularized,” Jaggi wrote in a Facebook post.


Montreal’s declaration rings bitterly hollow to people like David*, an undocumented man in his 30s who was set for deportation on February 27. (The deportation has been stayed following an intervention by the United Nations.) David was getting a lift from a friend when police pulled the car over and ask that everyone (not just the driver) produce ID. David was arrested on a warrant issued by the Canadian Border Services Agency as he had missed his deportation order date. A central requirement and demand of many sanctuary city campaigns has been that municipal services—and the police in particular—not report refugees or undocumented migrants to border authorities or immigration officials, as it means people can use city services without fear of deportation. Despite declaring itself a sanctuary city, David was set for deportation because Montreal police reported him to the border services. David fears for his safety in his home-country because of his sexual orientation. “If Coderre is saying Montreal is a sanctuary now, then he should actively intervene to prevent this deportation, even if the police/CBSA pick-up was before [the declaration],” Jaggi said. Montreal’s municipal police have no mandate to not communicate with border authorities or immigration officials.


"Despite declaring itself a sanctuary city, David was set for deportation because Montreal police reported him to the border services. David fears for his safety in his home-country because of his sexual orientation."


The mayor’s declaration simply mandates the Commission de la sécurité publique to elaborate, in collaboration with the Montreal police (SPVM), an approach to ensuring that non-status people are not placed at risk of deportation. There is no telling when this approach will be developed or what, if anything, will be adopted. Meanwhile people like David are still at risk of being deported, yet Montreal has declared itself a “sanctuary city.”


As cities race toward “sanctuary city” status across Canada, organizers with NOII-Toronto are working to put migrant concerns at the centre of this process.

NOII-Toronto organizers have been working on sanctuary city efforts since 2003. They used this experience to create resources for organizers in other cities and are encouraging activists to contact them for support around sanctuary city policy development and campaigns as this wave of interest evolves across the country. “Organizers in Toronto are helping grassroots groups in other cities to form alliances, build community power, draft motions and figure out a way to speak to councillors and get the best possible policy in this moment,” said NOII Toronto member Syed Hussan. “It is a strategic intervention intended to win rights for undocumented people and build a coalition to pressure Premiers to declare Sanctuary provinces.”

Municipalities and cities have limited jurisdiction so NOII-Toronto organizers are trying to foster comprehensive policies that include:

  • Barring all municipal services—including police—from collaborating with border and immigration authorities;

  • Training for municipal workers and volunteers to insure that people aren’t asked to provide documents they may not have;

  • Changing the wording on documents and forms and possibly creating new municipal IDs;

  • Adding accountability mechanisms so that complaints can be filed if services are denied;

  • Community education mechanisms such as (advertisements on busses have been displayed with the aim of informing undocumented people that services are available to them);

  • Regular community input for changes to policies and practices on an annual or bi-annual basis.

Organizers in Toronto are speaking from experience as Toronto named itself a sanctuary city in 2013, but a recent report by criminologists at Ryerson University argues the metropolis has failed to meet basic sanctuary city thresholds. Toronto police contact border service authorities roughly 100 times per week to conduct status-checks on people who they suspect are undocumented, according to government data.

In Montreal, Jaggi says that Solidarity Across Borders is taking a different approach to NOII-Toronto that is not focused on shaping municipal policies but instead on building 'Solidarity Cities' through their own grassroots networks.

According to the Solidarity Across Borders website, “Solidarity City is the creation of a community that rejects a system engendering poverty and anguish, not solely for immigrants and refugees, but also for other Montrealers confronting these same realities.”


“There is an understanding of the border as this violent, exclusionary force at the outskirts of the country,” Syed said. “But the border exists inside the city. It exists when the school administrator asks for ID. There are everyday borders that are instituted and enforced by civilians.”

An important step is to insist that “we refuse to enforce these policies in our communities,” Syed said.

Harsha Walia is an organizer with No One is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories and the author of Undoing Border Imperialism.

NOII groups and others like Solidarity Across Borders are shaping a grassroots response to the violence of borders that centres migrant voices, mutual aid and self-determination.

Harsha writes Undoing Border Imperialism that the lessons learned from this organizing provide “insights for all organizers on effective strategies to overcome state-imposed borders as well as the barriers within movements in order to cultivate fierce, loving, and sustainable communities.”

These are words to heed in a rapidly evolving situation with no shortage of peril and promise.



Matthew Brett (@mattbrett_1984) is a social anarchist and organizer based in Winnipeg, traditional territory of the Anishinaabe peoples and homeland of the Metis Nation.



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