Sanctuary still on agenda for churches and minister

Published January 1, 2005

Church leaders were scheduled to meet anew with embattled Immigration Minister Judy Sgro on Dec. 10 to clarify their position on a “confidential offer” for refugees that she made during their first dialogue last Sept. 29, and to push for the implementation of a merit-based appeal process.

The secret proposal, which Anglican officials said involved a “special channel” whereby the cases of 12 refugees could be submitted directly by churches to Ms. Sgro (who promised to act on the cases within 10 days) has divided church leaders and angered non-governmental organizations (NGOs) advocating for refugee rights. Some members of Parliament called the offer illegal and questioned why churches were being given preferential treatment.

There has been confusion among church leaders over what the minister offered. But Ms. Sgro’s office is similarly befuddled over whether or not churches have accepted the deal.

Some churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, submitted cases of refugees currently in sanctuary to Ms. Sgro’s office: Amir Kazemian from Iran (who is in sanctuary at St. Michael’s Anglican Church, Vancouver), Alvaro Vega and family from Colombia (St. Andrew’s Norwood United Church, Montreal), Menen Ayele and her three children (Union United Church, Montreal), and Samsu Mia from Bangladesh (First Unitarian Church, Ottawa). These cases have not been acted upon within the promised 10-day period and are still on file.

Some churches have, however, rejected the offer. “The churches would not want to be seen as being given any special privilege,” Rev. Richard Fee, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada said, emerging from a House of Commons immigration committee meeting last Nov. 2. “The big emphasis is the appeal process and we’re still standing behind that.”

The offer was “totally unacceptable” since it would have “set up the churches as the only appeal available,” said Heather Macdonald, of the United Church of Canada’s refugees and migration unit.

Ms. Macdonald explained that the United and Unitarian churches later agreed to submit some files of refugees currently in sanctuary at their churches after they reached “a more acceptable understanding” during a subsequent meeting with Minister Sgro. The new offer is one “that addressed our principled objections and could be made available to others in the community – it went beyond the churches.”

Only representatives from the United and Unitarian churches were present at the meeting but “the offer was extended to other faith and humanitarian groups,” said Ms. Macdonald.

An Anglican Church of Canada representative said there was confusion about what precisely was offered at the initial meeting with the minister. Archdeacon Paul Feheley, the primate’s principal secretary, said, “At the meeting she (Ms. Sgro) talked about a number of 12 cases. Someone took that to mean that’s not a hard and fast, fixed number. Others took it to be an absolutely fixed number.”

However, Ms. Sgro, who has been criticized in recent months for her department’s role in granting permits to foreign strippers, told Parliament she only offered “a low number of cases.”

Andrew Ignatieff, director of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the Canadian Anglican church’s relief and development arm, said some church leaders submitted names as “gesture of good faith.”

“It was an acknowledgment that her offer was made in good faith and therefore, the churches wished to accept that gesture by responding in good faith,” said Mr. Ignatieff. “It did not diminish the importance of the issue of appeal and it did not neglect that there are other, many, many cases that are left pending.”

Canadian church leaders, including Archbishop Hutchison, have recently defended what they called the church’s time-honoured and theologically-based tradition of providing sanctuary to refugees facing deportation. They said the only way to deter sanctuary would be for the federal government to address its “flawed” immigration system and set up a promised appeals process.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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