Allison Hanes: Offering sanctuary in dangerous times

Allison Hanes: Offering sanctuary in dangerous times


They’ve come in centuries past as runaway slaves seeking freedom. They’ve come as draft dodgers escaping war only a few decades ago. Now they’re coming as a stream of frightened humanity, spooked by the sudden uncertainty in a land that was supposed to hold so much promise.

Pictures show migrants dragging suitcases and pushing strollers through deep snow, as they cross the Canada-U.S. border at remote outposts, like Roxham Rd. near Hemmingford. In January, 452 entered Quebec illegally. But more seem to be making the risky journey every day.

In response to this, and as part of a growing movement of U.S. cities rising up against President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration crackdown, Montreal city council on Monday will debate whether to join the sanctuary movement. In the U.S., cities from Boston to Birmingham have recently adopted policies to provide services to, and not use their police forces against, people who are undocumented or have precarious immigration status. In Canada, too, this initiative in gaining ground.

Ottawa, Winnipeg and Regina are in various stages of joining Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver, which have already deemed themselves shelter cities. On Monday, Montreal will decide.

Montreal and Canada have a long track record of harbouring the desperate, dating back centuries. Laura Madokoro, a professor of history at McGill University, said that in the early to mid-1800s, between 30,000 and 40,000 fugitive slaves snuck into Canada from the U.S. through the system of safe houses that formed the underground railroad.

“This was an established network of abolitionists who assisted escaped slaves to get out of the U.S.,” said Madokoro, who has studied refugees and is embarking on a year-long project researching sanctuary movements specifically. “This is the best example of how sanctuary has affected hisory in a very dramatic way.”

The underground railroad was a system of individuals and groups operating clandestinely – or at least discreetly – to help fugitive slaves flee arrest by police or capture by bounty hunters. What makes the present-day sanctuary movement so interesting, said Madokoro, is that it’s elected officials and municipal governments who are creating the safe space – even under threat of having federal funds cut off.

The last time Montreal was inundated with asylum seekers fleeing the U.S. was during the Vietnam War. Thousands of draft dodgers trying to avoid military service in a conflict they opposed on moral grounds streamed north in the late 1960s and early ’70s, finding in Canada a safe haven and a chance at a new life.

“It’s the universities that were sanctuaries here in Canada,” recalls Roger Rashi, a campaign coordinator with the activist group Alternatives. “When the draft dodgers came by the thousands… McGill and Concordia were really the places where they were received at the time. There was no policy of expulsion, there was no policy of arrest.”

Rashi said the McGill ghetto used to be full of American draft dodgers. They attended school and some went on to get jobs in academia.

“Many of them stayed and stayed and went on to become full citizens,” he said.

There is also a tradition of churches, temples and other religious communities in Montreal sheltering refugee claimants trying to avoid deportation when their legal avenues ran out. In the early 2000s, after a tightening of immigration rules in Canada, there was a surge in cases of individuals and families hiding out in church basements while they made desperate last-ditch appeals.

Now Trump’s vow to deport undocumented immigrants, attempted ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspension of Syrian refugee claims has reinvigorated the sanctuary movement.

“I don’t like what I’m seeing south of the border,” Mayor Denis Coderre said. “It’s important in dark times like these to provide those values of justice, openness and equity for all our brothers and sisters.”

Coderre, who has a penchant for drafting policy on the fly, knows better than most what’s at stake. He has served as federal immigration minister when border controls were tighenting after 9/11. But he still feels it’s the right thing to do to ensure undocumented newcomers who do arrive here – and thousands who are in Montreal already – have access to services like housing, recreation, libraries and integration programs.

He notes, however, that the door may be open, but vigilance is required. The public security committee may hammer out a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy with Montreal police regarding people’s immigration status. But criminals or those with warrants against them can’t expect a free ride, he warned.

This promise of a balanced approach and a little historical perspective will be important in addressing skepticism. Even those who are not virulently anti-immigrant may ask why Montreal is opening its arms and devoting its resources to help people who may have entered Canada through the back door when there are so many waiting to get in the front.

Those who spent long years in the complicated and lengthy immigration system, those who are still waiting to have their claims settled or those who are desperately trying to reunite with loved ones by following proper procedures may feel resentful.

But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And as the tide of migrants grows, Montreal must be prepared. It must also be on the right side of history.