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Sep 2018 | The Future of Public Service Delivery

THE ROAD TO AN ACCESS WITHOUT FEAR CITY
COUNCILLOR JIM NEILL, CITY OF KINGSTON

The contention surrounding refugees and undocumented immigrants was one of the most disputed policy debates in the United States this past year. For reasons quite obvious, the issue quickly spread to Canada as asylum seekers sought refuge at the Canada-US border. The stance on whether Canada is accepting too many immigrants is polarized by citizens. On one side of the pendulum is the formation of sanctuary cities, in which any resident can access municipal services without fear of deportation. Sanctuary cities are popping up both in the United States and Canada, including in Montreal, Toronto, and Kingston. Jim Neill, a councillor from the City of Kingston, speaks of his city’s journey to becoming a sanctuary city, strategically retitling Sanctuary City to an “Access Without Fear City.”

Many months ago, I met with a small group of community activists to discuss the idea of Kingston becoming a Sanctuary City. Kingston is a wonderfully progressive community with many New Canadians and a welcoming attitude towards refugees. As well as talking policy we discussed strategy.

I am a City of Kingston Councillor and a former high school Drama Teacher. I served on my teachers’ union provincial Human Rights Committee, so the topic was near and dear to me. We agreed to lobby our Mayor and Council and hopefully gain a consensus. We sought Mayor Bryan Patterson’s endorsement and hoped that he would and could move or second the Motion, thus bringing together the “left, right, and centre” of our Council.

The original name of the Motion was “Sanctuary City, Access Without Fear.” The Mayor met with the community group and committed to supporting the initiative but agreed to move or second a motion only if the words Sanctuary City were removed.   

His rationale was that the term was a misnomer in Canada, since, unlike in the U.S.A., Canadian municipalities don’t share governance over many of the policies that affect the daily lives of immigrants. For instance, whereas the City of Kingston is the Service Manager of Social Services, Affordable Housing, and many other provincially funded programs, we don’t have much ‘wiggle room’ around established and mandated criteria of those programs. They require recipients to have legal residency status. The Mayor felt the words Sanctuary City might lead to heightened and unachievable expectations. Kingston could never be a Sanctuary City in the way that San Francisco is.        

Mayor Patterson felt that the words would be ‘merely symbolic.’ To a Literature Major and Drama Teacher like me, “merely symbolic’ is an oxymoron; symbols do matter. The community group followed the plight of other Canadian Cities who were unsuccessful in passing Sanctuary City Motions. After considerable discussion we agreed that achieving a working policy framework, whatever it was called, would benefit Kingston.        

And so, the Motion, supported by the community coalition, was moved by the Mayor and seconded by me. It passed, I’m proud to say, unanimously at Council. I still used the term Sanctuary City when I speak at Council and in the community, because symbols do matter. But the term “Access Without Fear” ensures that all residents can access all city services, whether they be Fire, Police, Library, Parks and Recreation, etc., by simply being residents, regardless of their status. They can also get help and advice at Housing and Social Services, even if they don’t qualify for provincially funded programs. All of this without fear of ever being reported. City staff will never enquire about their status in Canada.           

The same community group along with Immigrant Services Kingston and Area (ISKA) designed a wonderful lawn sign that reads, “No matter where you’re from, we’re happy you’re our neighbor”, in five languages. The City of Kingston funded the first 500 and they were snatched up by Kingstonians.         

I’ve been knocking on 5,000 doors in my District for the upcoming election and have received many complements about our Access Without Fear policy. I did encounter a single complainant who shouted, “I know who you are! You’re a traitor to your people!” and slammed the door. That, I must say, was my proudest endorsement.

 

JIM NEILL has served 14 years on Kingston Council (1991-1998; 2010-2018). He is a recently retired High School Teacher and a sometimes freelance writer. He currently is the Williamsville District Councillor.