Gimme shelter

Published October 1, 2009

“There’s a young woman from Africa here who says she has come to claim sanctuary. What should we do?”

THAT QUESTION stymied Canon Andrew Asbil of Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer one morning this past winter. The question came from the church’s administrative assistant, Shirley Westmore. “Nobody has ever asked me that before,” he thought to himself. “I don’t really know.”

The woman, wearing a borrowed jacket and slippers woefully inadequate for cold weather, said she had just arrived in Canada with only a temporary place to stay. Someone had given her a Google map to Church of the Redeemer.

Mr. Asbil sought advice from a parishioner who works with Amnesty International. As it turned out, the young woman did not understand Canada’s refugee system. She thought asking for sanctuary, normally a last resort for a refugee whose claim has been refused, was the first step. In this case, helping was a matter of listening, providing advice, connecting the woman with people who could help her navigate the refugee claimant process, and offering some comfort, food and warm clothes.

But refugees for whom sanctuary is the last resort can come knocking on any church door. In 2001, Parliament passed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which promised to establish a refugee appeal division. This part of the bill has never been implemented. In the current system, a refugee’s fate depends on a single decision-maker. There is no right of appeal on the merits of the case, says Janet Dench, executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said the Canadian system is “one of the fairest and most generous” in the world, but Ms. Dench says statistics show huge variance in acceptance rates depending on who hears a case. “We have a system that to some extent works as a lottery,” she explains. “If you happen to get one decision-maker, you’ll be accepted; if you get another, you’ll be refused.”

Parishioners hear about the circumstances of people refused refugee status and feel morally obligated when they realize that “nobody, nobody within the government is going to take a second look at that decision,” Ms. Dench says. Still, she adds, there are very few churches willing or able to provide sanctuary.

Rev. Steven Mackison knows just how difficult providing sanctuary can be. He is now serving the parish of St. John the Baptist in Dixie, Ont., but in 2006, when he was at Trinity Church in Port Credit, Ont., a long-time parishioner, Felicia (Ola) Abimbola Akinwalere, was forced to take sanctuary to avoid being deported to Nigeria, where her husband had been killed.

Ms. Akinwalere had applied for permanent residence status, and Mr. Mackison had written letters in support. Despite this, the government rejected her application and decided she would not be at risk if returned to Nigeria.

Ms. Akinwalere decided to fight the pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) decision and was granted a judicial review. Mr. Mackison, 12 parishioners, Ms. Akinwalere’s 10-year-old daughter, Alice, and a lawyer accompanied her to a Toronto federal court. But the judge ruled against her, which meant that she would be deported within days.

The Trinity congregation had already decided to support Ms. Akinwalere, and when she decided to seek sanctuary that day, they sprang into action. They set about making the church basement as homey as possible, hooking up a phone, cable and Internet. A janitor’s wet closet was transformed into a shower. Within a week, $15,000 had been raised, mostly from parishioners.

The congregation had also met with Majed El Shafie, an ordained minister who runs the human rights organization One Free World International. “He put us in touch with one of the top immigration lawyers in the country, who took on Ola’s case pro bono,” recalls Mr. Mackison.

“We knew that it was illegal strictly speaking. We knew that it would be an act, from our perspective, of civil disobedience, that the corporations, the wardens, and/or the incumbent could be put in jail for harbouring a fugitive,” he adds. They knew that, in practical terms, an arrest almost never happens, he said. Despite the strong vote of support, about 90 per cent, Mr. Mackison believes a few families did leave the congregation over the issue, although they did not speak to him directly.

Mr. Mackison, parishioners, activists and lawyers advocated on Ms. Akinwalere’s behalf for two years, meeting with politicians and appealing to the press. No response from Immigration. Frustrated, the congregation decided to hold a press conference, advertising it with a big sign on the lawn. That’s when a neighbour called police to complain that someone was living in the church. A rookie police officer, who did not understand sanctuary, took the call and arrested Ms. Akinwalere.

“I got the clericals on, got in the car…and went down to the police station…guns a-blazing,” Mr. Mackison recalls. But it was too late and was now a matter for Immigration. He calmed Ms. Akinwalere, sitting next to her as she sobbed in a holding cell. “We prayed together,” he says.

The disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When her lawyer explained that all Ms. Akinwalere was asking for was a stay of deportation until her final application could be heard, the Immigration officials agreed. This spring, Ms. Akinwalere received a letter from Immigration. The government had granted her request to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds while the department reviews her case. That could take up to two years.

When asked if he would do it all again, Mr. Mackison said, “Absolutely. I think it was a real opportunity of grace for the parish because what they thought was going to be a burden was transformed into a gift. And Ola’s time with us gave us a focus and a mission, and she enriched the life of our community.”


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

Keep on reading

Skip to content