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More funding and staffing needed to bolster Toronto’s “Sanctuary City” policy

Sanctuary cities are intended to break down barriers for newcomers to access services, but in Toronto those policies need more staffing and funding. (Photo by Pat Pitchaya)

Making Toronto a world-class city means not overlooking its most vulnerable populations; however, current policies lack the grit to truly make a difference for communities in precarity.

According to the PDF filereport by the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS), factors such as chronic underfunding and lack of staff have limited the city of Toronto’s ability to properly implement the sanctuary city policy. The report is written by criminology professors Graham Hudson and Idil Atak along with fellow co-authors Michele Manocchi and Charity-Ann Hannan.

In spite of its challenges, Toronto was the first urban centre in Canada to create a sanctuary city policy, and that is noteworthy.  “The policy is the first in Canada; it should be acknowledged and celebrated,” said professor Atak. “It shows the rising role of municipal governments in the management of migration.”

However, after interviewing service agencies, city staff and non-status immigrants, professors Hudson and Atak concluded that many improvements are needed for Toronto’s sanctuary city initiative, AccessTO, to go beyond a namesake and to be shaped into a legitimate policy that serves those for which it was written.

“The policy relies on the goodwill and hard work of a very small team within the city,” said professor Atak. “You have a small number of people who champion the policy without being paid to do it,” concurred professor Hudson, the lead author of the report.

The challenge in serving this community is that it is diverse and needs access to a large range of services. According to professor Atak, the perception that undocumented workers are largely seasonal workers is inaccurate. “It is a very diverse population, including elderly individuals, single women and children,” she said. “There are many specific vulnerabilities that are not addressed.”

Moreover, law enforcement’s lack of will to endorse AccessTO leaves individuals already in difficult situations even more vulnerable. “One of the main barriers to implementation is that the Toronto Police Service has not adopted the policy,” said professor Atak. “Undocumented migrants are afraid to access police services.”

Because of Toronto’s geographic placement—as a major urban centre which attracts a variety of immigrants and as a city with relative proximity to farming operations that employ seasonal workers—it is an ideal place to implement a sanctuary city policy, noted professor Hudson. “Most non-status immigrants live here,” he said. “And because of its size, Toronto has the best chance of influencing change at the federal and provincial level and it has the ability to bring other municipalities on board.”

The recommendations made in the RCIS report included: providing a specific funding envelope within the city budget to support the implementation of the policy and to increase training surrounding the policy; seeking collaboration with the Province; coordinating with other sanctuary cities within Canada and the U.S. to compare and contrast approaches and develop best practices; and a closer examination of how the policy should be implemented on the frontline level and in tandem with service providers.

Professor Hudson’s project was funded by The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project.