They Smote Sanctuary

The sparkle in delegate’s eyes couldn’t keep a good motion alive

CITY HALL by Paul Dechene

As you may have heard, at their July 31 meeting Regina’s city council debated the “Access Without Fear City” motion. It was brought forward by Ward 3 Councillor Andrew Stevens, co-authored by a group concerned about human rights, and it was one of those motions so benign, so full of ambition and so packed with idealism, that there was absolutely no way council would ever pass it.

In short, Stevens’ Access Without Fear City motion was a call to declare Regina a “Sanctuary City,” but that phrase — which carries a lot of baggage from immigration debates in the U.S. — was dropped from early drafts of the motion in favour of the mouthful that went before council. However, had it passed, the end result would have been the same: the city would have committed to making all of its services — from recreation programs to fire and police services — available to all newcomers to Canada, regardless of their immigration status.

That posed a major stumbling block for council.

“The issue is, it sounds as if we have to correct a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Mayor Michael Fougere after the council meeting. “We do not ask for immigration status. We never do. The police service never does. But the motion keeps saying ‘make sure you don’t do this’, but we don’t do this. So the wording was awkward.

“And I think it was not troublesome so much as, I don’t know if I can support that because we don’t do it anyway, so why are we asking to do something we don’t do?”

Which is a fair a point — except that every single delegation and Councillor Stevens himself acknowledged that the city didn’t ask after immigration status when providing services.

What the supporters of the motion wanted was for council to put that commitment in writing.

According to the motion’s supporters, some newcomers to Canada aren’t so sure about Regina’s openness to immigrants. Maybe they come from countries where government officials aren’t so trustworthy. Maybe they’re here on a student visa, a refugee or an applicant for long-term residency and don’t want to jeopardize their status by rocking the boat. Maybe they’re a temporary foreign worker and don’t want word getting back to their employer that they’ve become a burden to the state. Or maybe they’re here illegally and have a legitimate fear of deportation.

Regardless of why, for some reason, the message doesn’t seem to be getting from the floor of council and out to the immigrant community that Regina is already, tacitly, an Access Without Fear City.

“I’ve been helping foreign workers and new immigrants to adjust to their new lives in our city. Many foreign workers told me repeatedly that they feel insecurity and exclusion and that they continually feel that they have to put up with various degrees of abuse to avoid the risk of deportation,” said Faycal Haggui, one of the delegations speaking in favour of the motion.

According to Stevens, that trepidation is a problem that is already acknowledged by the city’s emergency services.

“[Regina Police Service] knows this is an issue, and has policies and practices around newcomers,” he said by phone.

Stevens’ motion, though, went further than a mere declaration of good intentions. It also called for a review of city practices, community consultation, staff training, a policy liaison and a progress report in early 2018.

And when city manager Chris Holden, put a price tag on all this of up to $200,000, this council reporter knew the motion was doomed.

Did Stevens’ and the community activists who helped him draft the motion go too far in trying to turn their ideals into policy? Maybe. But Stevens says he tried to make it clear that he would have welcomed amendments to the motion.

In the end, a compromise of sorts was struck. Councillor Barbara Young took many of the low-cost/grand-vision elements of the Access Without Fear motion and incorporated them into an undertaking that directed city administration to, and please forgive the rambling quote, “educate the public, especially newcomers to the city, about access to City Services without fear that includes social media messages, program descriptions, connections with community groups and any other creative ideas and actions that staff may see as a way to help alleviate fear.”

And Councillor Bryce moved that the whole Access Without Fear motion — along with all the delegations’ comments and a taping of the July 31 council meeting — be referred to the levels of government that deal with immigration and refugee settlement.

Mayor Fougere will also be drafting a letter to accompany that package and a report on any response received is due to go before council in late 2018.

That was small comfort to the delegations who came out to support the motion.

“It seemed to me that they failed to understand or even read the motion because everything in the motion dealt only with municipal services,” said delegate Emily Eaton, after the meeting. “The mayor at one point, in questioning [me], said, ‘Doesn’t this have to do with education and health?’ And in fact it was only the word ‘education’ that I had said when I was talking about the public education campaign the city would have to do. This has nothing to do with any services outside the City of Regina.

“I don’t understand what the councillors want to do by sending this to other levels of government. Should the federal immigration minister tell city council that he fully blesses them in opening their services to everybody and ensuring everybody can access them without fear?” said Eaton.

Their disappointment is understandable. If someone were to draft a textbook on how best to present an issue to city council, the group who mobilized behind the Access Without Fear City motion would be included as a case study. Fourteen delegations came out to speak in favour of the motion. Eight more supportive communications, which included endorsements from the Regina Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Regina & District Labour Council, the Ethiopian Refugees Support Organization and St James United Church, were submitted.

The group consulted with police chief Evan Bray, and with other organizations such as Regina Open Door Society. They also met with all but a few city councillors before the motion was even submitted, getting their feedback on the draft text, and accommodated their concerns about wording.

And yet the motion still failed.

Technically, it didn’t even get voted on. Instead, it was procedurally referred away. All of council’s Strong Feels were hot-potatoed up to the federal government. The easiest-to-implement parts of the motion were turned into an administration “undertaking” that doesn’t include any kind of accountability mechanism.

Stevens, though, urged optimism. He hopes the groups that mobilized around the Access Without Fear City motion will press city hall for action and accountability on Young’s undertaking.

“I don’t think it’s completely destroyed,” he said. “There’s a space to discuss this issue now where there wasn’t before.”

It might be a big smoking crater where a decent idea used to be, but at least it’s still a space. ❧