Does Your Home Town Offer Sanctuary?

There was a time when humankind got along with minimal legal encumbrances.

In biblical times, what we know today as the Middle East was exploding with population growth. Ten tribes of Israel were carving up the land and agreeing that the Levites among them would own no land in the new country but would be its new overall 10-tribes “administrator.”

The Levites, as multi-generations of governing bodies have discovered since, soon learned being in charge of things may briefly be good for the ego but can also be painful.

One of the festering sores facing the Levites in their new role was a law as ancient as humanity itself: The old Mosaic “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” The Levites were wise in their ways which is why they were asked by tribal brothers to take on the toughest of tasks, that of persuading fellow Israelites to give up the power to slaughter – without trial or examination – a person who had been responsible for the death of another. Any blood relative of the dead, even if the death had been obvious accidental manslaughter, could openly kill the killer.

“So they (the Bible tells us) set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan (River) east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh.”

And, thus, were created the first six Sanctuary Cities of Israel, scattered throughout the country with each one reachable by not more than one day’s journey from anyplace where one human being had taken the life of another and could automatically, without trial, be executed by a member of the victim’s family. The Sanctuary City Law decreed that if an accused could reach “sanctuary” before the family took its lawful tribute, the accused could not be harmed until charged with murder and found guilty. 

Readers may justifiably be wondering why I’m delivering a weekend sermon on a law several thousand years old and involving long-forgotten Sanctuary Cities and the unpopular protection they were offering. I have a few reasons, among them the fact that Sanctuary Cities still exist, and Canada has several. They don’t deal with life-for-life vengeance anymore, not in Canada, anyway, where the death penalty was banished years ago.

So how come Toronto, Hamilton, London, and Montreal have “Sanctuary City” designations while Vancouver modestly dropped the title “Sanctuary City” but has an officially adopted Access to City Services Without Fear for Residents With Uncertain or No Immigration Status. That designation has earned praise from the Canadian Labour Congress “for Vancouver taking action to support non-status migrants beyond the standard designation.”

Sanctuary Cities may no longer be needed to protect the precious belief in Canada that every person is innocent of any charge until proven guilty, but they obviously have a role to play in an expensive humanitarian effort.

Residents of Canada “with uncertain or no immigration status” are hard to count.

The Canadian Institute of Health Resources admits: “There are no accurate figures representing the number or composition of undocumented immigrants residing in Canada. A guesstimate of about half a million has been proposed nationally, but this number varies among other sources that suggest there are anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 undocumented workers.

“In 2003, Ontario’s Construction Secretariat claimed there were 76,000 non-status immigrants in Ontario’s construction industry alone. Other sources assert that at least 36,000 failed refugee applicants had never been deported, and another 64,000 individuals overstayed their work, student, or visitor visas in 2002. If it is assumed that workers are accompanied by family, the numbers in Ontario would rise to the highest figure previously estimated for all of Canada. With respect to settlement, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto have the highest number of undocumented migrants with nearly 50 per cent residing in Toronto alone.” 

Why the hang-up with the numbers? Simple answer: Hiding in our major cities are a minimum 200,000 refugees from other countries seeking a Holy Grail called “Canadian landed immigrant status.” Some are here having crossed a remote border without detection. Others have watched official study visas or limited work permits lapse, and on being rejected for landed immigrant status, they have quietly found work somewhere and blended unnoticed into our cosmopolitan population.

Racism is something they have to live with; incidents they have to nurse quietly at home, and bullying and derision about accent or colour are tolerated without complaint. There are no health care benefits or unemployment benefits, just social isolation and the constant fear of discovery and deportation by federal authorities.

The Canadian Labour Congress has been a steadfast friend of the would-be Canadians and has had some success getting smaller municipalities to remember that Sanctuary City policies are consistent with Canadian Charter protected rights to equality and security of person; and that many municipal services can be provided with the promise of “access without fear.” 

The United States of America has a wonderful Statue of Liberty at the entrance to its main harbour on the East Coast. Its inscription once earned the USA worldwide admiration – and a little envy here in Canada: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” The USA seems to have lost sight of the message and its meaning in recent years.

Maybe we could build on the Sanctuary Cities foundation and offer the world a Sanctuary Country with the first huddled mass to be welcomed being the one that’s already here but afraid to show its face.

One comment

  1. Before the war Canada behaved badly towards all non-white would-be immigrants, as well to those who’d managed to sneak through.

    Post-war Canada changed dramatically and is now identified as multicultural.

    And in many ways we’ve become a Sanctuary Country with our acceptance of refugees from various conflicts. Taking the next step wouldn’t be difficult.

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