A black and white photo of a family in front of their town with large arms holding them. It reads "Sanctuary cities now"

Research by Sanctuary Canada

Written by Ciana Hamilton

Illustration provided by 2019 Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative

Canada has four official Sanctuary City designations, which allows someone to access most city services without being questioned about their immigration status. Municipalities across the country, big and small, are continuing to join the Sanctuary City movement and although big cities like Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto are trying to alleviate the fears around deportation, the Sanctuary City designation does not protect the most vulnerable refugees from deportation.  

Sanctuary cities are new but the offering of sanctuary, for those in the most need, is an ancient practice. It is important to not confuse the two. Before the hype of sanctuary cities, the term ‘sanctuary’ was reserved for when a person or family would seek refuge in a church or place of worship. Churches were (and still are) able to provide a special kind of sanctuary or protection since they are seen as institutions outside of government laws. This type of sanctuary still exists today and here’s a basic guide of what you need to know about sanctuary in Canada.  

So, what is Sanctuary? 

Sanctuary is support and protection that is given to an individual or family by a church or place of worship. Refugees may seek sanctuary if they are at risk of unjustified deportation back to a country where they will face persecution, violence or death. In Canada, the last 30 years of sanctuary cases have been resolved peacefully. Churches review sanctuary requests on a case-by-case basis and not everyone who seeks sanctuary is granted sanctuary. The ultimate goal of sanctuary is to have a safe outcome for an individual or family facing deportation. 

Formal vs. Informal  

Sanctuary comes in two forms, formal and informal. Formal sanctuary takes place in a church; this type of sanctuary comes with the complete support and safety from the church congregation. Someone in formal sanctuary needs to remain in the church until his or her status has been resolved. Informal sanctuary is sanctuary offered outside of a church. A network of support systems holds this type of sanctuary together, but because the person or family is not staying in a church they are more vulnerable to arrest and deportation. Locations for informal sanctuary are undisclosed in order to keep the families protected. This type of sanctuary can still have the backing of the church but not the same type of protection. 

Who can go into sanctuary? 

Sanctuary is often reserved for the most serious of cases. There is a process that the church goes through in order to decide whether or not a particular situation requires sanctuary. One of the biggest deciding factors is to determine the level of immediate danger to a person or family in their country of origin. The church must verify and have evidence that there is, in fact, ‘extreme danger if deported’. The congregation must also ensure that all persons seeking sanctuary do not have anything in their personal history that could void the church’s practice of sanctuary (arrest warrants, criminal charges etc). Anyone can approach a church and inquire about sanctuary but it’s important to know that churches take sanctuary very seriously. 

Could sanctuary be for you? 

If reading this you feel that sanctuary could be an option for you, a family member or friend – here are some tips for further investigation. The Canadian Sanctuary Network (www.sanctuarycanada.ca) is a network of volunteers who are advocating for refugee claimants whose statuses have been wrongfully rejected. On the website is information about how sanctuary works, a detailed description of the process a church takes in order to determine sanctuary and other resources. Not all churches can offer sanctuary but most churches can help guide a family in the right direction.  

Keep in Mind 

It is important to remember that the congregation of the church must take a number of factors into consideration to ensure that sanctuary would be the best option for an individual or family. Sanctuary requires a long-term commitment from both the church and the family. Once a person is in sanctuary, the process is often described as isolating and emotional. Sanctuary is one of the last options a church can offer however, many churches are able to provide additional support for migrants who are facing deportation. 

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