History of Canadian Sanctuary Movement

[Original Paper and Appendices PDF]



Prior to World War II, Canada’s immigration polices were very selective. Most immigrants came from the UK or northern and eastern Europe. A notorious example of this policy occurred in 1939, when a boatload of desperate Jewish refugees arrived in Canada. They were immediately rejected and returned to Germany with tragic results. Later, when a senior immigration official was asked how many Jewish immigrants Canada should take after the war. He famously replied, “None is too many.”

But things did change after WWII. Thousands of persons from Europe, displaced after the war, came to Canada. In 1956, 60,000 Hungarian refugees were welcomed following the Hungarian uprising. Czech refugees arrived after Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Refugees from Uganda arrived soon after, fleeing the Idi Amin regime. And close to 70,000 South Asian “boat people” were welcomed in the 1970’s. Canada was opening its doors to refugees in an impressive fashion, respecting the Geneva Convention’s requirement to protect persons “with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or of a particular political opinion.” By the 1980’s refugees were coming to Canada from all parts of the world and in 1985 a landmark Supreme Court decision, the Singh decision said, in effect, that anyone on Canadian soil (a refugee as well as a Canadian citizen) was entitled to protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What this meant was that refugee determination, which up to this point was in the hands of immigration officials, now required “due process” and a right to an oral hearing before the decision maker rather than a paper review of a transcript. Response to refugees in Canada was by no means universally positive but the prevailing public mood and policy was one of welcoming.


The Singh decision led to the establishment, in 1989, of the Immigration and Refugee Board, a quasi judicial body separate from the Immigration Department, with Gordon Fairweather as its first Chair. At an IRM hearing, a two member panel would hear the claim of the refugee(s) (who would be accompanied by counsel) and if one member of the panel made an affirmative judgement, refugee status would be granted and the refugee could eventually become a Canadian citizen.

Overall, the newly established Board functioned well. If there were problems, the Minister, Barbara McDougal, was prepared to listen to front line workers like Nancy Pocock from the Society of Friends, representatives of a refugee support group called Vigil, workers at Amnesty International etc., and take appropriate action. But her successor, Bernard Valcourt, refused to intervene and indicated that he would rely on the decisions of the established authorities like the IRB.

But what happened when the IRB tribunals made mistakes – because of poor translation, inadequate legal representation, misreading of country conditions, or faulty judgment on the part of the panel? There were refugee claimants facing deportation to dangerous situations when they fell through these “cracks” in the system. So early in the 1990’s, Nancy Pocock (of the Society of Friends) and others convened a meeting of concerned persons: refugee lawyers, representatives of Amnesty, Vigil, Mary Jo Leddy and others. This was the beginning of what became known as the Sanctuary Coalition.

Through 1991 and into 1992, the numbers of refugees who were mistakenly rejected gradually increased. On June 3, 1992, Gordon Fairweather, Chair of the IRB, wrote Michael Creal and offered to convene a working lunch to review the concerns of the emerging sanctuary group. That meeting occurred on June 16, attended by Fairweather, Nancy Pocock, Mary Jo Leddy and Michael Creal. The latter three pointed out the need for an appeal process to deal with cases where mistakes appeared to have been made. Fairweather listened sympathetically but argued that everyone would appeal and the whole process would become very costly. It was a cordial meeting but no resolution of the problem emerged.

Around the same time, and in response to a request from Michael Creal on behalf of the Coalition, Howard Adelman, head of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, arranged a meeting between NGOs and Peter Harder, Deputy Minister of Employment and Immigration. At the meeting, Harder and others from the Department outlined provisions of a new Bill that dealt with the selection of refugees abroad, and speeding up the process of refugee determination in Canada. There was no provision for an appeal system, however, except through the Federal Court on matters of law but not on matters of merit. And this Appeal was not automatic, only after “leave to appeal” was granted.

But the numbers of refugees slipping trough the system was growing. There were a significant number of Eritrean cases that Mary Jo Leddy sought to bring to the attention of Pauline Browse, the Minister of State for Immigration. While Canada recognized Eritrea as an independent state in April of 1993, led by the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), those who belonged to an opposition group, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), mostly Moslem, faced persecution and real danger. It was refugees who had been associated with the ELF that Mary Jo and Romero House had been dealing with and attempting to support. This was a matter of misreading country conditions on the part of Canadian authorities, including the IRB. Both Amnesty International and the worldwide Jesuit Refugee Service had solid evidence about problems facing ELF supporters in Eritrea. The question of interpreting country conditions would be a continuing issue, because documentation was generally six months or more behind the reality on the ground.

Immigration authorities were adamant in their unwillingness to accept the refugees that Mary Jo Leddy was supporting. The Coalition, which by now had gathered considerable support, held a press conference at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto in June of 1993. They undertook a “Civil Initiative to Protect Refugees” making it clear that they would not abandon the twenty-three cases they had identified as deserving refugee status even thought those cases had been rejected by the IRB. (See Appendix 1).


Early in 1993, June Callwood wrote the Prime Minister indicating that there had been no movement on the cases  supported by highly respected refugee advocates and that it would reflect badly on his commitment to human rights if no action were taken. Prime Minister Mulroney ordered a review but the review only yielded a positive response on one case (a gender case). On July 24, Michael Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church, was quoted in the Toronto Star As saying that perhaps now was the time to invoke the ancient tradition of Sanctuary. Doug Lewis, Minister of Public Security (in charge of immigration), was disturbed by this report and said he would meet with representatives of the Coalition and discuss the cases. This meeting was held at Anglican Church House in the summer of 1993. From the Coalition, Mary Jo Leddy, Tom Kelsey (Romero House lawyer), June Callwood, Dan Heap, Alex Neve and Michael Creal participated. The Minister arrived with members of his staff.

In the course of the meeting, When Minister Lewis realized that the Coalition only supported refugees whose cases were well documented and apparently valid, he adjourned to caucus with his staff. When he returned, he said he would arrange for the Director of Case Management to review each of the twenty three cases with representatives of the Coalition. This meeting occurred at the Anglican Diocesan Office in Toronto in early September of 1993. Brian Davis, Director of Case Management and members of his staff met with members of the Coalition, including Mary Jo Leddy, Alex Neve and Faye Sims from Amnesty International, Gwen Smith (from Vigil), Dan Heap and Michael Creal. The Minister’s Assistant, Blair Dickerson was also present.


At the September meetings it soon became clear that much of the documentation that had been sent to the Department by members of the Coalition was missing in the Government files. Blair Dickerson noted this and was surprised. But Davis promised to go over all the material and get back quickly with his response.

The response? Davis reported that after review, all cases were still rejected. Dickerson (and all members of the Coalition) were appalled. Dickerson reported back to the Minister and recommended that he grant certificates to fourteen of the cases (the others needing further corroborating evidence). (See Appendix 2).

On October 27, Mary Jo Leddy received a communication from Brian Davis indicating that the Minister had, indeed, issued certificates for fourteen of the cases and that the Department would proceed with the next steps. But there was now a new government and action on the fourteen cases appeared to have stalled.

Because of concerns expressed by many refugee workers about IRB decision making, Chairperson Nurjehan Mawani asked James Hathaway, Professor of Refugee Law at Osgoode, to conduct an independent investigation of the workings of the Board. In its presentation to the Hathaway enquiry to Coalition offered evidence to the effect that conditions in the most oppressive regimes were often not apparent when refugees arrived. Often, the documentation centres would not have that information at hand. Even journalists were sometimes unable to access to what was happening in dangerous situations of social/political conflict so refugees were, on such occasions, the first to report on actual conditions. But if the refugees’ reports didn’t tally with what was in the documentation centres, the refugee claim would be (wrongly) rejected. The brief also raised questions about the training of the IRB members and the role of the Refugee Hearing Officer which, the Coalition argued, should be non adversarial, though that was often not the case. It was a good session and Leanne McMillan, Hathaway’s assistant, subsequently met with the Coalition on a number of occasions. (See Appendix 3).

Furthermore, in the fall of 1993, in a presentation at a CCR consultation, Mary Jo called for a Public Enquiry into the whole operation of the Immigration Department, a call that was subsequently supported by the CCR. This question was raised late in 1993 by members of the Coalition when they met with the (then) new Minister, Sergio Marchi. Mary Jo pointed to either chaos or corruption in the Department, citing the missing documentation at the September meetings with Brian Davis. Marchi responded in a letter to Mary Jo some months later denying there was corruption and chaos in the Department (Mary Jo had said either corruption or chaos to explain the missing files, not chaos and corruption). Marchi rejected the idea of a public enquiry. He did respond to some of the other items raised in the earlier meeting.

For instance, the Minister asked Susan Davis and Lorne Waldman to investigate the matter of Post Claim Reviews. A submission to Davis/Waldman from the Coalition (Feb 9, 1994) noted that in the previous year there had been a zero percent acceptance of post claim reviews and therefore recommended that there be a suspension of all deportations of people from countries where political conditions put their lives at risk, and for all those who had suffered traumas such as rape, torture, imprisonment etc. (see Appendix 4).

In response to the carious submissions it received after making public its response to the Hathaway Report (entitled “Rebuilding Trust”), the IRB stated principles that were unexceptional but short on specific answers e.g. ensuring that its documentation centres had up to date information on country conditions that refugees were fleeing, the role of the Refugee Hearing officer to enquire or investigate rather than act as an inquisitor, the need to appoint IRB members with recognized expertise. These issues would continue to arise in the refugee determination process for years to come.

The very extensive Davis Waldman report, issued in the Spring of ’94 (entitled The Quality of Mercy) proposed expanding the basis of H&C reviews and argued for an appeal “on merit” (in addition to the appeals to the Federal Court on matters of law). The Davis Waldman report and the Hathaway report are complementary and provided an excellent basis for a revision of refugee legislation and regulations. It would be an understatement to say that legislation that was later introduced failed to build adequately on what those reports proposed though what was recommended in them did have some effect. This will be noted further down in this paper.

Back to the fourteen cases. Action had clearly stalled on these cases. There were a number of communications in the early fall of 1994 expressing growing impatience with the failure of Department officials to act on decisions and promises made over the past year. On Nov 2, members of the Coalition signed a letter to Peter Harder, Deputy Minister of Immigration, saying, “Let us be very clear. Unless the situations which we described in our October 19 letter (requesting action on he fourteen cases) are corrected, we will seek our remedies in the Courts.”

The response to the Coalition letter was the appointment of Mike Molloy, Director General of the Ontario region, to review the outstanding cases. This occurred at a meeting held at York’s Centre for Refugee Studies. On May 23, 1996, Molloy issued his report indicating that subject to meeting certain conditions (medical and security clearance, etc.) all cases could eventually be landed. (See Appendix 5 which identifies the original 24 cases and provides a report on their disposition as of Feb 20, 2001)


The Coalition took a major initiative in the spring of 1995. After much consultation and through the indefatigable work of Coalition member Wilbur Sutherland, representatives of 30 different faith groups – including Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Baha’i – came together on June 27, 1995 at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, and signed a “Call to Conscience” addressed to the Canadian people and the Canadian Government. (See Appendix 6 for the full text and list of signatories). The statement expressed a central concern that “None is Too Many” could become “the operative principle within Immigration Canada.” The statement also attacked the “head tax”, and the $975 landing fee that refugees must pay, even though that fee was far beyond the resources of people who had been forced to flee their homeland, leaving everything behind.

It was a remarkable achievement – probably unprecedented – to get thirty leaders of different faith communities to agree on the wording of a two page document.

Irving Abella, Past President of the Canadian Jewish Congress and Alexandra Johnson, President of the Canadian Council of Churches forwarded the statement to the Prime Minister asking him for his endorsement. The endorsement never came but the statement got extensive coverage in the media and stands as an important document expressing, in powerful language, the support of Canadian faith communities for refugees seeking a new home in Canada.

Through the course of 1996, the Coalition explored the possibility of launching a Charter challenge based on what it saw as a failure of the Department of Immigration to live up to what was called for in the Singh decision, notably a recognition of the principles of natural justice. What Hathaway had said in his report was that “a tribunal which adjudicates upon one’s rights must act fairly, in good faith and without bias and in a judicial temper must give…the opportunity to adequately state one’s case.” The Coalition had two cases at hand which seemed a good example of Hathaway’s point. One of eh cases, supported by Amnesty, was that of Omar Osmand, a notable Eritrean journalist who had published an article in the Globe and Mail about conditions in Eritrea (conditions which the IRB tribunal had denied in its rejection of Osmand). Mike Molloy reviewed this case, noting medical issues that had to be addressed and sought more documentation from the Eritrean Embassy. Sadly Omar Osmand died before his case was adequately dealt with. The other case was that of Sami Durgan, a Kurd from Turkey, whose landing had been geld up for security reasons. See below.

Through 1997, The Coalition continued to address a range of refugee cased and convened numerous consultations with various refugee advocacy groups including the Kingston Sanctuary group which was particularly concerned with the plight of a number of refugees. At a minimum, these consultations provided mutual support for those frustrated in their attempts to get fair treatment for refugee claimants.

In 1998, there were three major focal points for the Coalition. First, the “head tax” referred to above. Secondly, in 1997, the Minister of Immigration (Lucienne Robillard) had established a Legislative Review Advisory Group which published a Report entitled Not Just Numbers. Supposedly this report responded to points raised by Hathaway and Davis/Waldman. The Report proposed, among other things, the abolition of the IRB and the handing over of its responsibilities to “trained civil servants.” The consultation process set up by the Minister was seriously deficient and while there were some constructive proposals, there was much for refugee advocates – like the Coalition – to be critical of e.g. the inadequate consultative process, handing back refugee determination to civil servants, a “paper” appeal system and pejorative references to “economic migrants.” (See Appendix 7) In the end, the IRB was retained but this would not be the last attempt to abolish it.


A third point of focus for the Coalition extending through 1998, 1999 and 2000 were security cases involving Sami Durgan and Suleyman Goven. Both were Kurds from Turkey and were alleged, by CSIS, to be members of the PKK, a Kurdish political body deemed by Canadian authorities to be a terrorist organization. Durgan and Goven denied that they had ever been members of the PKK but they were quite open about their support for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

In her book, At the Border Called Hope, Mary Jo Leddy gives an account of Goven’s interview with a CSIS official at which she was present. At the hearing, the official indicated to Goven that if he were prepared to name Kurdish refugees who were members of the PKK, the CSIS official was in a position to recommend that he be landed. Goven refused this offer and it soon became clear that this was a tactic commonly used by CSIS. In fact, on April 19, 1998, a letter was sent to Ward Alcock, Director of CSIS, signed by 14 Kurds, complaining that they had been invited to inform on fellow Kurds with a promise that this would make it easier for them to be landed. (See Appendix 8). The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) had earlier – in connection with a Toronto Star report about a Tamil refugee similarly propositioned about informing on fellow Tamils – questioned the propriety of the spy agency trying to recruit informants. CSIS denied that this was its practice but the evidence was now pretty clear. Mary Jo had witnessed it first hand.

With the support of the Coalition (and much support from Mary Jo) – and others – Sami Durgan, in March of 1998, embarked on a vigil to draw attention to his case. When Sami Durgan’s case was earlier reviewed at the Adelaide St. meeting in Sept 1993, immigration officials said he had 12 brothers living in Turkey so he was not at risk. In fact, he only had two brothers, one in Bulgaria and the other on Germany. A remarkable case of misinformation on the part of the Immigration Department.

In response to a letter which Mary Jo wrote in March of 1998 complaining to CSIS about the delay in granting security clearance to Suleyman Goven, T.J. Bradley Assistant Director of CSIS indicated that if she was dissatisfied with the response from CSIS, she could appeal to SIRC (the Security Intelligence Review Committee). And this she proceeded to do with Sharry Aiken and Barbara Jackman acting on behalf of Sami and Suleyman and with Mary Jo in attendance at all sessions of the SIRC hearings. The tribunal appointed by SIRC was Bob Rae who listened to all the testimony and, at one point, when CSIS introduced a document that provided an erroneous, but self serving account of times and dates, Rae was outraged and said that the CSIS document was clearly a forgery.

In his report (April 3, 2000) Rae cleared Goven and Durgan of all charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and recommended that both be landed. (See Appendix 9) His report, however, went to the Solicitor General (to whom SIRC reports) and the Solicitor General’s office did not send it to the Immigration Department which had power to grant landed status. Such a failure of inter departmental communication certainly didn’t serve the cause of justice so the cases dragged on.

Early in 1999, Minister Robillard released a legislative review document, Building on a Strong Foundation for the 21st Century, outlining in broad terms the direction in which new immigration and refugee legislation was intended to move. In response, the Coalition offered Comments on the White Paper in which it made three points: 1. New legislation must include a full, impartial appeal process for refugees whose claims have been rejected by the IRB. 2. New legislation must include a variety of measures to introduce transparency and accountability into the security screening process, including a time limit and 3. Landing fees for refugees must be eliminated (see Appendix 10). The Coalition’s response was circulated widely to members of parliament and many responded positively albeit without making actual commitments on any of the specific points raised.

Four members of the Coalition (Mary Jo Leddy, Ann Manuel, Dan Heap and Michael Creal) met with the new Minister, Elinor Caplan on Nov of 1999 and raised points that had been made in response to the White Paper. It was a frank exchange and the Minister appeared to take the Coalition’s concerns seriously. Not long after, she did announce that the landing fee had been eliminated and on March 1, the Coalition wrote to congratulate her. At the November meeting, Caplan also recommended that the Coalition set up a session with Gerry van Kessel (Director General, Refugees Branch) as a follow up, and this occurred on March 23 at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. New legislation was pending but the meeting provided an informal setting for discussing the question of an appeal, criteria for the H&C applications, security check processes etc.

The Coalition had already sent Craig Goodes (Director of CIC Security and Case Management) a copy of Bob Rae’s SIRC report which had never been passed on to the Immigration Department by the Solicitor General’s Office. Goodes promised to discuss it with the Minister. The delay, however, continued. Eventually, in March of 2001 Goodes let it be known that if Sami Durgan were to write to the Minister asking for ministerial relief and saying clearly that he had never been a member of the PKK, it would then “not be in the National Interest” to withhold his landing. Such being the case, the Minister would then be in a position to grant him status. This in fact happened and at the Fall Consultation of the CCR (2001), Sami Durgan was named “refugee of the year.”

The offer was not, however, extended to Goven. His case stretched over several more years with numerous, unsuccessful attempts to get action from the Federal Court (in 2002), ministerial intervention, and response from departmental officials with respect to recommendations in the Rae report. Eventually, with the possibility of a Civil case hovering in the background, there was a hearing before the Federal Court on May 10, 2006 at which it was clear that the case presented by the government’s legal team was marked by confusion and omissions and the judge instructed the government lawyers to go back to the drawing board and do a full review of their evidence. In the end, the Government capitulated and on Sept 7, 2006, Suleyman Goven received his Permanent Residence Card. Suleyman wrote to the Manager of CIC in Etobicoke “this card represents a great deal of suffering and agony for me.” He cited words from one of his friends: “It is a terrible thing to fight for so many years for such a simple thing.” The whole story is told in Mary Jo Leddy’s book Your Friendly Neighbourhood Terrorist.


Following the 9/11 attack, security concerns became a priority in the U.S. and there was a call for tighter security at the Canadian border. The U.S. Congress authorized a tripling of the number of officers on the Canadian border (some Americans claimed – erroneously – that the 9/11 terrorists had entered the U.S. through Canada). At the same time, Immigration authorities in Canada were determined to reduce the intake of refugees. The result was the Safe Third Country Agreement (signed December 2002 and effective on December 29 2002) in which Canada agreed to cooperate with the U.S. in tightening border controls, and refugees seeking entrance to Canada were forced to make their refugee claims in the U.S. (and vice versa). Since very few refugees sought to enter the U.S. through Canada and large numbers sought to enter Canada through the U.S., the agreement provided a way for Immigration Canada to achieve its goal of substantially reducing the intake of refugees. The Coalition, along with other refugee advocates in Canada (including, of course, the CCR) fiercely but unsuccessfully opposed this agreement (which was never debated in Parliament). In the fall of 2002, the Coalition declared a Civil Initiative to help refugees cross the border safely. It also made a presentation on Nov 20, 2002 to the House of Commons Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, referring to he Safe Third Country Agreement as the “None is Too Many Agreement.” There was a successful challenge in 2007 but it was overturned in the Federal Court of Appeal. In 2018, the Federal Court did grant leave to appeal the Agreement. In July 2020, the Federal Court struck down the Agreement. In response, the Canadian Government has indicated that they will appeal the judgment.

During the Spring of 2001 there were hearings on a new Immigration Bill (Bill C-11). In the middle of the hearings, the 9/11 event occurred which heightened the focus on questions of security. The Coalition – and other advocacy groups – were concerned about the absence of clarity in the use of the term “terrorism.” One person’s liberation movement would be another person’s terrorist movement. Consider the case of Nelson Mandela. The Coalition also wanted to see SIRC’s position strengthened and it argued for more than a paper appeal process which C-11 was proposing. The Coalition made its views known in a presentation to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration and in Mary Jo Leddy’s presentation to the Senate’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. A further issue raised by the regulations accompanying C-11 was the question of undocumented refugees i.e. refugees who arrived without documentation either because it wasn’t available to them as persons fleeing persecution or because the country from which they came didn’t provide identity documents like birth certificates. Even though at IRB hearings the issue of identity was dealt with, the regulations required specific documents before landed status was granted. This, said Andrew Brouwer (articulating the views of the Coalition) was both unnecessary and illegal (under the U.N. Refugee Convention).

In the end, Bill C-11 was passed without provision for an Appeal and with IRN tribunals reduced from two members to one!

Early in 2003, it was reported that Immigration Minister Denis Coderre had proposed to Cabinet that the IRB be abolished and a new system devised to deal with the backlog of refugees. Reaction of refugee advocates was immediate. Such a move, they argued, would violate principles underlying the Singh decision. Coderre subsequently denied that he had made such a recommendation but, once again, the idea of abolishing the IRB seemed to be in the air.

The Coalition’s experience over the previous ten or more years led it into a discussion of that kind of country we wanted Canada to be. This led to a paper (May 2003) by Jack Costello entitled Canada’s Future: a Good Country or Colony of an Imperial Power. (See Appendix 11) The paper articulated the value base for the work of the Coalition.

In 2004 the Coalition responded to enquiries about Sanctuary from concerned persons in Regina, London Ontario, Montreal and Quebec City. On March 5, an Algerian refugee, Mohamed Cherfi, was arrested while in Sanctuary in a United Church in Quebec City. Local police entered the church on the grounds that Cherfi had violated a criminal court ruling that he not leave Montreal where he had been active in the support of Algerian refugees in that city. City police in Quebec handed him over to immigration authorities who deported him to the U.S. The Coalition, along with many others, expressed outrage at this violation of Sanctuary. Cherfi was eventually returned to Canada and ultimately achieved landed status but it was a troubling incident.

There were repeated attempts on the part of the Coalition to meet with the Minister, Judy Sgro, to discuss issues relating to Sanctuary but these were unsuccessful.

As of July 2004, six churches in Canada were offering Sanctuary: four Palestinians in Notre Dame de Grace in Montreal, an Ethiopian mother and three children in Union United Church in Montreal, a Colombian family in St. Andre-Norwood in Montreal, a Nigerian woman and her daughters in St. Cecelia’s Roman Catholic Church in Calgary and a Serbian woman in a church shelter in an Anglican church in Halifax.

Unhappy with these random events of Sanctuary, Sgro decided on a meeting with church leaders to discuss the situation. The meeting was held on Dec 13, 2004. What she proposed was that the churches come up with a limited number of cases (no more than 12) in a given year and she would review them. But from the churches’ viewpoint, what was needed was a proper appeal process and her proposal was no substitute. Sgro, however, said the idea of an appeal process was dead in the water. Sgro’s aides suggested that her proposal was an interim measure with a review of the refugee determination system in the offing. In the end, Sgro did provide relief for five refugees in Sanctuary in Montreal and Ottawa, a move warmly welcomed in the Advent season by the churches involved.

Over the next few years the Coalition was involved in further cases I the Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto areas.  Abdelkader Belaouni, a blind Algerian refugee was in Sanctuary in a Roman Catholic church in Point St Charles (lawyer Jared Will) and did a regular radio broadcast (Radio Sanctuary). Members of the Coalition participated in demonstrations on his behalf in Toronto and in the Minister’s constituency office in Simcoe.

Overall, Kader spent four years in Sanctuary and was ultimately given status following a procedure Jared Will and Andrew Brouwer arranged with CIC Case Management. Kader left the country temporarily and through an overseas visa office (in Paris) received the appropriate documentation to re-enter Canada with status.

There was continuing consultation with a sanctuary group in Ottawa through this period and active participation in two Ethiopian cases in Toronto. Both of these involved young women who spent time in Sanctuary, in one case in Westhill United Church in Toronto, and the other, in Newtonbrook United Church. In the latter case, the Federal Court judge involved in a review of the documents (Justice Campbell) said the case demonstrated the important role of the sanctuary movement in supporting a refugee who was initially rejected by the IRB and ultimately faced deportation.

There was a further case in this period involving a Nigerian woman who found sanctuary in an Anglican parish in Mississauga. After a complaint from a neighbour, she was picked up while gardening in front of the church by a local policeman unaware that her situation in Sanctuary had been respected by the authorities at CIC. Ultimately her case was resolved with CIC.


With a grant from the Canadian Auto Workers, the Coalition arranged a consultation on Sanctuary on Nov 20-21 2007, that brought together people – from coast to coast – who had been involved (or were currently involved) in offering Sanctuary. The point of the consultation was to learn from the experience of such people, provide an opportunity for mutual support, and offer a chance to reflect on the rationale and theological basis of Sanctuary. About forty people participated and after sharing their experience in small discussion groups through the morning session, a panel responded to their reports. The panel was composed of an anthropologist from the University of Toronto, Hilary Cunningham, who had written a book on the sanctuary movement in the American southwest entitled God and Cesar at the Rio Grande, Heather Macdonald, responsible for refugee issues and policy for the United Church of Canada, John Juhl, a Franciscan priest whose Toronto parish had offered sanctuary to a refugee family from Costa Rica, and Peter Showler from the University of Ottawa and a former Chair of the IRB. In the evening, Gregory Baum, himself a refugee after World War II and a retired faculty member at McGill, offered ethical and theological reflections. The following morning session focused on the future. An account of the Consultation is found in Appendix 12 which includes an article published in the Fall 2010 issue of Refuge, a journal published by the Centre of Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto. A key point that emerged during the consultation was that Sanctuary should be seen as a “Civil Initiative” demanding that the Government live up to its commitment to provide a safe haven for refugees seeking an escape from situations where their lives were at risk. It was a valuable moment of stock taking and an opportunity to review the problems and achievement of the sanctuary movement in Canada. In the final analysis, it was agreed that an ethical imperative underlies the sanctuary movement. Meeting a refugee face to face is a call to action. John Juhl (a Franciscan priest) put it this way: “when a refugee family facing deportation came to my door asking for help what could I do? If the church does not stand up for people seeking refuge, what are we about? It’s a moral responsibility. We are called to be prophetic. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless. Congregations offering sanctuary act in this tradition. They seek to combine the prophetic with the pragmatic.”

In 2009 and 2010, two ships (to use a term that flattered the decrepit condition of the vessels), the Ocean Lady and the Sun Sea, arrived off the coast of British Columbia carrying – between them – over 500 Tamil refugees. The event was sensationalized by government authorities and standing on the deck of one of the ships, the Prime Minister and Minister Kenney celebrated their roles as persons protecting Canada from dangerous international smugglers – with no acknowledgement that these were refugees from life threatening situations from Sri Lanka. Among the “passengers” was a prominent Sri Lankan journalist, Maran Nagarasa who, among other things, had reported regularly to the BBC on conditions in Sri Lanka. When it became clear that his critical public assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka had put his life at risk (he saw what was happening to other journalists critical of the Sri Lankan regime), he had no choice but to leave and search for a country that would provide asylum. When he realized, after a long journey at sea, that the ship had arrived in Canadian waters, his hopes were high. However, he was placed immediately in detention where he remained for many weeks. Eventually, he was released through the efforts of PEN Canada (Mary Jo Leddy) and the work of Andrew Brouwer. Years later (in 2013) he was granted refugee status and landed. The Canadian government used the arrival of these refugees as an occasion to introduce draconian legislation dealing with arrivals that the Minister of Immigration could deem “irregular.” Detention would be mandatory for such persons and there would be no chance to gain refugee status for five years, which would almost eliminate the possibility of re-uniting with family members through sponsorship or other arrangements. In response to the new legislation, on Nov. 10, 2011, the Coalition submitted a critique to the Sub Committee on Public Safety and National Security challenging the legislation – as did the CCR and other refugee advocacy bodies. (see Appendix 13)

In 2020-12 the Coalition successfully supported a Nigerian case in Toronto and supported through email contact and Skype a Salvadoran case in Vancouver. The Salvadoran had been in Canada for many years but was deemed inadmissible because he had belonged to a “terrorist” group in El Salvador (though that terrorist group actually formed the government in El Salvador in 1992!). Less successful was the case of a former KGB member from Russia. He was more or less conscripted into the KGB while still a student but rejected by Canadian immigration officials because of his former KGB connection. He was in Sanctuary in a Lutheran Church in Vancouver for three years and on one occasion gave a piano recital from that church broadcast by the CBC. He eventually “fatigued out” and returned to Russia though his family was able to remain in Canada. There was also, at the same time, a war resister in Sanctuary in a United Church in Vancouver thought the Coalition was not involved in that case.

During this period the Coalition facilitated several Skype conferences with participants or activists in Toronto, Vancouver, Perth and Montreal. There was also the case – actively supported by the Coalition – of a Mongolian refugee in Sanctuary in an Anglican Church in the west end of Toronto. That case failed when allegations of sexual abuse were made against the claimant, though his wife and children did eventually achieve landed status. During this period there was also the continuing issue of Mexican refugee claimants coming from a country with manifold human rights abuses involving drug cartels and gangs using extortionist tactics. Canadian authorities seemed to find ways of turning a blind eye to all this when it came to dealing with Mexican refugees.

It was becoming clear, in the light of the Harper/Kenney regime (“bogus claims” was a favorite Kenney term) that sanctuary should only be used as an absolutely last resort. In fact, in mid 2011 the government imposed restrictions on who could apply for a Humanitarian and Compassionate appeal, and when, introducing a new order of difficulty. Still, there were two successful sanctuary cases (referred to above) in that period involving young Ethiopian women who spent time in two United Churches in Toronto. In one case, the Federal Court judge (Justice Campbell), responding to a request for Appeal, observed that this particular case clearly validated the practice of sanctuary! The person was granted refugee status and eventually landed.

Sanctuary was avoided in another case involving a Guatemalan refugee family. In this case, the issues of “hardship” and the best interests of the children were argued and the case was successfully petitioned before the U.N. Human Rights Committee. Hilary Cameron and Kristin Marshall were the lawyers who handled this case. Eventually, the family of four was granted landed status (despite the negative judgement of Justice Hughes of the Federal Court) and ultimately became Canadian citizens. The husband and wife, Mynor and Sonya, are now Board members of Sanctuary North which has a property near Bancroft Ontario where refugees can widen their experience of Canada and have the opportunity to combine recreation, work on the property, and time for reflection. Mynor and Sonya’s two children are currently (i.e. 2018) students at the U of T and Ryerson.

It was also in the summer of 2010 that Mary Jo met with members of the German sanctuary movement in Berlin. That meeting was the beginning of an important relationship. Hans Thomae and Rita Kantenir Thomae who have been leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in Germany visited Toronto in June 2015. At a crowded meeting at the Church of the Holy Trinity on June 9, 2015, they gave an account of Sanctuary in Germany where, at that point, over two hundred congregations were providing sanctuary for refugees – with the government’s sanction! The German Government’s openness to Syrian refugees – and refugees from other parts of the Middle East and Africa during this period – is a remarkable story. There will no doubt be a backlash, but Merkel’s position has been little short of heroic. The relationship with Hans and Rita has been sustained and, in fact, extended with the revival of the sanctuary movement in the U.S. Through Skype, and  beginning in 2017, regular sessions have been held linking Toronto, Berlin, Tucson, Arizona, and the Stony Point Centre in the Hudson Valley in New York.

Refugees from various countries continued to “fall through the cracks in the system” and in May 2012 the Coalition convened a regional consultation to review the situation with new refugee legislation in the offing (Bill C-31).

Peter Showler made an opening presentation which began with a success story. The father of a Nepali family who had been in Sanctuary for half a year was interviewed by a CIC official with a positive outcome. The family is now re-united though they had waited fourteen years to gain status! Showler went on to outline what was offered in the new system. There would be three kinds of refugees: regular, safe country, and irregular arrivals (with CBSA having power to designate “irregular” arrivals and CIC the power to designate “safe” countries). Irregular arrivals would be placed in detention with detention review after two weeks and then after six months. If they received a negative judgement, they would be deported. People who receive a positive decision would have to wait five years for permanent residency. Timelines would be short, limiting the opportunity to gain documents from abroad. “Regular arrivals” would have access to the RAD fifteen days after the negative decision. People from designated safe countries and “manifestly unfounded cases” or cases with “no credible basis” would have no access to the RAD. In short, the new legislation would increase the need for sanctuary because there were so many points where mistakes could be made. As Sean Rehaag put it, there would be more errors made and fewer errors caught. The new legislation which radically limits the opportunity to make Humanitarian and Compassionate Appeals and apply for Pre-Removal Risk Assessment would seem to provide increased incentive to go underground.

Subsequent sessions of the consultation reviewed current sanctuary cases and considered future strategy and action: recruiting churches for sanctuary, discussion about when to go public about a sanctuary case and when to keep a low profile, questions about charitable status being at risk, psychological issues related to being in sanctuary – including the risk of building dependency – the need to support congregations offering sanctuary, ethical and theological issues etc.

One case (in 2012), involving a Jewish/Christian family from Russia via Israel was considered by the Coalition but rejected for “sanctuary” on the grounds that while Russian Jews who had converted to Christianity might be discriminated against in Israel, the discrimination couldn’t be regarded as persecution. However, this particular family was accepted into sanctuary at Westhill United Church through the Coalition did not support the move. It was a difficult time for the family and the congregation, and, in the end, the family was deported to Israel. It illustrated the need to have a solid case with a good chance for a successful outcome before making the commitment to provide sanctuary.


In the course of 2012 it had become clear that there was a serious issue with respect to the number of Roma refugee cases that were being rejected. Andrew Brouwer took on the case of one Roma family, the Pusumas (along with others). In the case of the Pusumas, a key document given to the lawyer was not translated and presented at the hearing and the lawyer didn’t even show up to present the case but simply sent an “assistant.” The document provided evidence that Josef Pusuma had been physically attacked for his work on Roma rights in Hungary (working is association with a member of the European Parliament). Without this compelling evidence, his claim failed. All subsequent appeals were rejected. On hearing the Pusuma story from Mary Jo Leddy, an Anglican Religious community (Order of the Holy Cross) in the west end of Toronto agreed to provide sanctuary for the family. In the meantime, the Coalition, led by Mary Jo and Andrew launched a professional misconduct complaint to the Law Society against the Pusuma’s ;awyer Viktor Hohots. Eventually, another congregation willing to offer sanctuary had to be found because the Holy Cross community jad to move to another location where sanctuary would not be feasible. Several venues were checked out including St. John’s Church in Winona (Diocese of Niagara) which had a large vacant rectory. A church warded, hostile to the Roma, blocked that possibility.

Towards the end of 2012 Mary Jo approached Alexa Gilmour, Minister at Windermere United Church. Mary Jo explained that she had approached other congregations, but they explained that there were too busy with Christmas preparations to get involved with offering help for a refugee family! Alexa put the case to her congregation, and they agreed. Since all the appeals – H&C, Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, appeals to the Federal Court – had failed, getting the case before the Law Society of Upper Canada was the next step.

In the meantime, Kristin Marshall approached a film maker friend about doing a film on sanctuary. Over a relatively short time an excellent ten-minute film was produced and is available on the Sanctuary website (sanctuarycanada.ca). The film interviews a number of people from congregations that have provided sanctuary and includes an interview with the actual Pusuma family who were in sanctuary at that time.

A multi faith coalition was formed to support the case. Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld became actively involved as did Avrum Rosensweig, a social activist in the Jewish community. Avrum and Jenn MacIntyre undertook special responsibilities in the campaign working closely with Alexa Gilmour. The Pusuma’s daughter “Lulu” became a focal point for media publicity which culminated in large demonstrations in front of Minister Alexander’s office in Ajax on May 23rd, 2014. The “free Lulu” demonstrations requested a “Temporary Residence Permit” for the family. A procession including children, rabbis, holocaust survivors, refugee lawyers, clergy, the local Anglican bishop, circled the constituency office with shofars sounding, and much lusty singing. The Minister chose not to be around but the petition was later left in his office.

The Minister, Chris Alexander, chose not to respond to the petition but the case against Hohots was finally dealt with by the Law Society. On Monday, March 2, 2015 Hohots admitted that he “failed to assume complete responsibility for his practice and that he failed to directly and effectively supervise the non lawyer staff of his office…” There were actually about 17 Roma complainants against Hohots and two other refugee lawyers but the most well known was the Pusuma family.

The Pusumas’ time in sanctuary was long and arduous. In the end, they decided to go back to Europe (Hungary in fact, though Germany was initially considered) to await the outcome of an appeal which was now greatly strengthened by the Law Society’s decision. The request was for a Temporary Residence Permit while a newly strengthened H&C case was being prepared. That permit was eventually granted and the Pusumas returned to Canada triumphantly on June 23, 2016. The Pusumas’ expectations were high and probably a bit unrealistic. There was a lengthy and difficult wait for permanent status which took a heavy emotional toll. Eventually, circumstances and morale improved but the family story is still to be written. Providing sanctuary had worked but the cost was considerable.

The most comprehensive survey of the situation of Romani refugees at that time (i.e. up to 2015) is provide by a paper written by Sean Rehaag, Jennifer Danch and Julianna Beaudoin entitled “No Refuge: Hungarian Romani Refugee Claimants in Canada” published by the Social Science Research Network.

Among many things documented in that report were some disturbing statistics. Between 2008 and 2012, three lawyers, Viktor Hohots, Joseph Farkas, and Elizabeth Jaszi, dealt with almost a thousand Roma refugees, but the overwhelming majority were rejected. In Hohot’s case – he represented over 500 cases just to that point – the success rate was just one percent! All three lawyers were disciplined by the Law Society. In Hohot’s case, there was a five-month period of suspension and a two year restriction on representing refugees. Jaszi was permanently disbarred. To observers, Hohot’s penalty seemed pathetically light. And those statistics only track cases up to 2012 so the total numbers are much grater. But the issue of lawyers failing dismally to represent refugee claimants (while collecting money from Legal Aid) has now been publicly documented and recognized by the Law Society. If this means that complaints to the Law Society about shoddy representation of refugee claimants will be taken more seriously in the future, it will mark a notable achievement.

But there is a lot of unfinished business relating to the Law Society’s responsibility. The Pusumas now have permanent residence, so theirs is a success story. But what of the hundreds of Roma claimants who were represented by the three lawyers? What does justice mean for them? What is the responsibility of the Law Society and Immigration Canada in their cases? This matter is currently being pursued by the Coalition with Mary Eberts, Maureen Silcoff, and other lawyers playing ket roles along with Gina Robah Csanyi, Jennifer Danch and others in the Roma community. The goal is to provide another chance for Roma claimants who were represented by the offending lawyers. It promises to be a long struggle.


In the autumn of 2018 Gloria Nafziger, long time in charge of the Toronto office of Amnesty International Canada but now retires, agreed to become the Chair of the Sanctuary Coalition. Time for fresh thinking about the role of Sanctuary. The need has never been greater.

Michael Creal

June 4, 2019