Interview with Dr. Meghan Joy on Sanctuary Cities 

by Vivian Whalen 

Canada touts itself as a multicultural and accepting nation – but is it? Canada’s “sanctuary cities”, such as Toronto, illustrate that issues remain in creating the progressive cultural mosaic so often promoted about the country. Take Toronto’s “Access T.O” policy. The law is meant to provide undocumented persons access to an abundance of city services, like paramedic aid, without needing to provide government identification. On paper it may seem helpful, but in practice, it tends to fall short. We interviewed Dr. Meghan Joy to speak on these issues. 

Dr. Joy highlighted: “if you say you are a safe space and that you are not checking for identification, but you are, and you are not implementing proper training, you are viscerally putting people in danger.” The matter of implementation speaks to the core problem of sanctuary city policies and practices in Canada today. In the context of the policy capacity of city staff, Dr. Joy posed the following questions: “Do they have the money to actually support organizations to train staff about these policies? Do we have some departments that have very conflicting and different ideas of this policy? If yes, how are cities navigating that? How are they working with activists and community groups that are pushing for these changes?” Policymakers need to thoroughly answer these questions in order to create policies that result in tangible positive change. 

Lack of diversity remains another shortcoming in the area of creating and implementing sanctuary city policies and practices for undocumented populations. It is not enough for Toronto Mayor John Tory to declare August 24th as the city’s “Undocumented Residents Day”; such declarations are merely performative actions unless they are reinforced with coinciding policy and attitude changes. Diversity needs to be a core lens in sanctuary city research and in policymaking. In large urban multicultural centres like Toronto, access to ethno-specific care supports, services offered in multiple languages, and proper translation of official documents are crucial to creating safe urban spaces for migrants and refugees. In the Greater Toronto Area, wait times for acceptance into ethnicity-specific long term care homes are six months longer than the average wait times for other long term care homes. It is thus important for cities and the province to respond to the ethno-specific needs of residents who navigate old age as immigrants. For a city to be a true sanctuary city and for Canada to be a true multicultural nation, municipal and federal governments need to be “listening to and providing proper support for all of their residents,” says Dr. Joy. 

Another aspect to creating safer sanctuary cities involves the police. The police force has been known to play a major role in making especially undocumented migrants and refugees feel unsafe in cities. In 2015 Toronto’s police force made the most inquiries with immigration authorities in Canada about people’s immigration statuses. Dr. Joy emphasized that “you really can’t have a sanctuary city without having the police on board.” In Ontario in particular, the intergovernmental aspects of Ontario’s provincial Police Act and municipal sanctuary city policies need to be more widely examined and understood. 

For Canada to be a “cultural mosaic” and for cities like Toronto to be “sanctuary cities” multiple areas need to be improved, including the Access T.O policy and beyond. Proper policy design and implementation, ethno-specific services for older adults, symbolic policy gestures and performative activism, and policing issues need to be deeply understood and addressed. A 2017 report by the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS) made several recommendations to improve the Access T.O policy, including special training, community engagements, and changing Toronto’s collection methods for information related to demographics. Until recommendations like these make their way into policy, Canada as a country and Toronto as a city will be places that migrants and refugees continue to feel unwelcome and fear for their safety based on their citizenship status. 

*Dr. Meghan Joy is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Concordia University and a Soli*City collaborator. Their research focuses on around progressive cities, the relationship between community organizers and local administration, and ageing populations within cities. Much of her research explores the ways in which cities are navigating diverse ageing populations, including how older immigrants are captured in policy around issues such as housing vulnerability. For more about Dr. Meghan Joy and their most recent publications please see:

One thought on “Interview with Dr. Meghan Joy on Sanctuary Cities ”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *