Open Letter To Council Requesting Affirmation Of Toronto As A Sanctuary City

Dear Deputy Mayor, Councillors and city staff,

I’m a resident of Toronto and first generation Canadian. My family immigrated to this country from Italy in 1957, fleeing a region of that nation torn by the Second World War. My family was lucky. Low-skilled urban labour was in demand at the time we arrived. It was also an era of post-war boom in Canada which permitted upward mobility. As you’ve likely noticed, much of that has changed. Temporary foreign workers are being brought to this country by the hundreds of thousands[1] with no clear agenda to grant them access to the privileges enjoyed with Canadian citizenship.[2] At the same time, real wages are stagnating. With this dire economic situation as a backdrop, I write to you today to urge you to uphold your Feb. 21, 2013 decision to declare Toronto a Sanctuary City and to continue to allow this city’s estimated 200,000 undocumented people access to city services.[3]

This is a matter of basic human dignity. Without status and in a foreign land, undocumented people are reduced to bare life. They are here because we deem them productive or because they have fled another place for a better life here. But they have no agency in Canada. They face barriers to the free health care we show off to the world as an example of our just society. And they cannot look to the state to assist them financially if they lose their jobs. But they are here and may have every intention to stay. It is unconscionable to block their access to city services and programs ─ including funerals. The refusal by this city in January to pay for the burial of Rogerio Marques De Souza, an undocumented labourer from Brazil, whose family could not afford a funeral, was disgraceful.[4]

But if you will not uphold Toronto’s status as a Sanctuary City for the undocumented, do it for yourselves. Some will derisively tell you that Canadian municipalities are merely creatures ─ or even tools ─ of the provinces in which they are located; that you are all out of your jobs if the provincial government decides it be so. I see things differently. I see Toronto, specifically, as a unique place guided by unique legislation (The City of Toronto Act) and in a unique position to leverage that autonomy against the interference of senior governments. Neither Queen’s Park nor Ottawa exerts day-to-day management over this city. Toronto, for all practical purposes, must not function, politically or psychologically, as some colony of the Province of Ontario, I argue to you. You have the ability to redefine who gets to be “in” and who has to stay “out.” You have the ability to create a safe space for vulnerable people living in fear of deportation, distrustful of authority and disconnected from the society in which they live.[5] I tell you again: these human beings are here now and they deserve dignity, compassion and just treatment now.

Thank you.


 

[1] Government of Canada, “Facts and Figures,” Fact Sheet — Temporary Foreign Worker Program, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/employers/temp-foreign-worker-program.asp (accessed on February 20, 2014).

[2] Gwen Muir, “Expanding the settler-state: racialized exclusion and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” Solidarity Across Borders, May 10, 2013, http://www.solidarityacrossborders.org/en/solidarity-city/solidarity-city-journal/expanding-the-settler-state-racialized-exclusion-and-the-temporary-foreign-worker-program (accessed on February 20, 2014).

[3] Nicholas Keung, “Toronto declared ‘sanctuary city’ to non-status migrants,” Toronto Star,  February 21, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/02/21/cisanctuarycity21.html (accessed on February 20, 2014).

[4] Nicholas Keung, “City of Toronto refuses to pay for funeral of undocumented immigrant,” Toronto Star,  January 24, 2014, http://www.thestar.com/news/immigration/2014/01/24/city_of_toronto_refuses_to_pay_for_funeral_of_undocumented_immigrant.html (accessed on February 20, 2014).

[5] City of Toronto, Undocumented Workers in Toronto, October 22, 2012, http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/cd/bgrd/backgroundfile-55291.pdf (accessed on February 20, 2014).

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