A small, but concerted group of Vancouverites is quietly working behind the scenes to help new Canadians who have recently faced their darkest hours.
Sanctuary Health is a collective of volunteers from the fields of nursing, community outreach, childcare and other social services who work alongside new Canadians facing “precarious” settlement status: some are temporary workers, others are refugee applicants or those who have entered the country without being documented.
Their work was recently brought to light in New Westminster, when members of the collective helped shape a policy framework that sees that school district officially designated as the first sanctuary district in B.C.
That designation formalizes a policy that ensures all school-aged kids are given access to schooling without their personal information or family histories being shared with other government agencies. “One of the main barriers that these families face is the fear, whether it’s real or perceived, of being deported,” said Sanctuary member Alejandra López Bravo. “In most cases, the fear of being deported is very real.”
Lopez Bravo was one of two Sanctuary representatives who sat on an advisory committee during the year-long process that brought New West’s policy to fruition in late February. In a given year, Sanctuary helps 50 to 60 kids get access to education across Metro Vancouver.
New West school board trustee Mark Gifford said the policy has been applied in less than five cases over the last year. He said there was virtually no pushback from the community as the policy was being shaped.
“For most folks who even expressed concern, once they understand this is about providing access to public education for children who are living in our communities, a lot of the fear-mongering or knee-jerk response declines,” he said.
Sanctuary came to be in 2012, in response to Conservatives’ move to pass Bill C 31. That bill gave the federal government more power to deport refugees, decide who could enter Canada and deny or delay those with temporary status designations.
The Sanctuary City status was adopted by the City of Vancouver last year. Its intent is generally in line with the sanctuary school policy framework. The park board and Vancouver Public Library have also adopted similar policies. While the Vancouver School Board hasn’t formally adopted the policy, it does support requests to enroll students without status.
“In alignment with the School Act, residency, not citizenship status, determines access to VSB schools,” the VSB said in a statement to the Courier. “If both the child and parent normally reside in B.C., they are entitled to a publicly funded educational program, regardless of immigration status.”
Sanctuary has helped about 10 families in Vancouver with the school enrolment process. The group has received considerable interest and feedback since the New West policy was formalized. Group members have been contacted by school staff from across Metro Vancouver and B.C.
“There are kids living in our communities who are seven and nine years old who are not going to school and they should be in school,” López Bravo said. “Part of the responsibility of the school boards is to be educators, not to be immigration enforcement agents.”