Seeking Sanctuary

Seeking Sanctuary

On Sunday, February 19, one of our members, Mary-Margaret Jones, delivered an impassioned talk about racism in Canada; the fallacy of Canadian exceptionalism and the identification of Toronto as a “Sanctuary City”; and our responsibility to be better allies against white supremacy and systemic oppression.


Listen to the talk on SoundCloud:


You can read the entire transcript below:

February 17, 2017

Mary-Margaret Jones, Trinity St. Paul’s United Church


Preamble: The comments are directed at TSP’s white congregants.


My family and I attended the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy on February 4. Protesting has become a bit of a family activity. Bill C51, Black Lives Matter, No DAPL, the Women’s March … It’s something we like to do, together.


The protest was staged outside the US Embassy a week after President Donald Trump issued his executive order on immigration – the Muslim ban. The crowd was not as large as the Women’s March, which, honestly, did not surprise me.


I think, when you put a term like “white supremacy” in the title of the action, you will undoubtedly limit participation because it is such a jarring turn of phrase. Nowadays, progressives and allies against racism use the phrase “white supremacy” to describe the overt and subtle racist practices of movement conservatism in the post-Civil Rights era, and how North American society is still structured around maintaining and protecting white privilege.


At the Day of Action, there were several speakers including Alexandra Williams from Black Lives Matter Toronto.


A few days earlier, Toronto City Council passed a motion that re-affirmed our city’s commitment and status as a sanctuary city in reaction to the Executive Order.


Speaking to the crowd in the bitter cold, Williams asked us what being a sanctuary city really means when we that same city council voted to reduce funding for child care and affordable housing.


Her words pierced me.


I hadn’t considered the intersections of police brutality, affordable housing, and health care provision – any of it! – when I proudly pressed “like” on the tweet proclaiming city council’s decision. As before, Williams and BLM TO challenged – more like mandated — me to think differently or nothing would be resolved.


She asked how can we welcome people to a country and city where the established white population is suspicious of immigrants.


Most poignantly for me, she asked what it means for this to be a sanctuary city when our police can kill Black men like Andrew Loku here and never face charges.


Andrew Loku was a 45-year-old father of five who fled civil war in South Sudan and came to Canada in the hopes of finding a better life.i


He settled in Toronto. Went to George Brown College and studied construction. Andrew also lived with mental illness. He told friends that he often heard sounds like shots or hammering – a vestige of living in a war zone.


He was killed on July 4, 2015 when police officers were called to his Toronto apartment building, after reports he was threatening a woman inside with a hammer. Andrew was irritated by noises from his neighbours.


Instead of trying to de-escalate the situation, instead of talking to neighbours, police shot Andrew in the third-floor hallway of building known to be leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association to tenants with mental health challenges.


SIU launched an investigation into the killing of Andrew Loku. And like every other instance of a Black man being shot by the police, no charges were laid against the officers.ii


In the very same way that Indigenous women are more likely to be sexually assaulted or murdered, that Indigenous men importunately fill our prison cells, every single day, black bodies in this city, face violence.


Heck – even one of my daughter’s Black friends who is 15 has been carded more times that he can count.


This morning we heard the ancient rule of hospitality and community from Deuteronomy which says must embrace radical hospitality, because, like them, we were once strangers.


Violence. Suspicion. Racism.


None of these words are in the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of sanctuary.


And yet that is what we are offering the refugees who can make it to Canada, a nation built on Indigenous land.


If my social media feeds are any indication, Canadians don’t really acknowledge how inhospitable we are. Canadians really like to believe that we are less racist than Americans in every way.


As Scaachi Koul, a rising editorialist, noted: “It’s like being considered the gentler, kinder sibling. In reality, we’re just more passive-aggressive, too frightened to acknowledge how we fail our citizens day after day.”


Scaachi is right. We are not better than Americans.


Kofi Hope noted last week that Canada is a colony that benefited enslavement of Black people pre-Confederation.


We treated the Chinese workers who built our national railroad as disposable labour.


We put Japanese Canadians in internment camps and turned away boatfuls of Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust in World War II.


We continue to benefit from the displacement and cultural genocide of Indigenous people.


It’s easy to forget all of this when our political leaders perpetuate the myth of Canadian exceptionalism.


For instance, In the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration – or the Muslim ban – our Prime Minister tweeted “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcometoCanada.”


His message went viral. Everyone likes Canada – we’re nice. Lots of congratulations going all around. Columns appeared in the New York Times saying Canada is a multicultural wonder.


We’re not.


If we want to truly become a refuge for those seeking sanctuary, we must accept our role in supporting structures that privilege white over Indigenous over people of colour and those without status.


We need to eradicate racism once and for all, or this cycle of oppression and violence will continue until the end of our days.


We can do better. And we need to.


The numbers of people seeking asylum in Canada are escalating regardless of our policies.


More people are arriving because refugees feel unsafe in the US, and because there are more refugees around the world.


The difference is, because of the Safe Third Country Agreement, people are crossing irregularly – that is, not at a port of entry like a border crossing — to avoid being turned away at the border and sent back to the US where they face incarceration.


Instead, they must make their claim inland, which means that they spend several weeks without access to government services, including health care. Or they live here illegally – undocumented.


As an aside… In Canada, we believe we have a universal health care system. And yet, there are an estimated 500,000* people who do not have access to healthcare coverage because of their status. Many of their stories can be found on the Website for OHIP for Alliii, a movement led by frontline health care workers who are asking the Ontario government to change its policies so that everyone can access health care.


If the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US were suspended, people could make their refugee claim at the border ports of entry in a safe and orderly way.


After all, Canadians have nothing to fear from refugee claimants crossing irregularly. They present themselves as soon as they can to law enforcement officials, so that they can make their claim, and go through a security screening.


Refugee claimants are not trying to avoid examination – they are just trying to avoid being sent back to the US.


The Canadian federal government has no plans to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement at this point. I imagine they have no desire to rock the boat with the Trump administration because of the president’s unpredictability. Our economy and safety are tied to the US.


I’m not envious of the PMO right now. No one gives you a guide book on how to deal with the rise in hatred and abandonment of reason.


My empathy is a luxury. A privilege. People of colour, Muslim people, Latinx, Trans… None of them have the option as to whether they can rock the boat or not.


Oppression and injustice are proliferating and instead of acting on a moral imperative, our government is silent and protecting the systems that privilege the white and wealthy over all others.


As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”


It is critical that we dismantle the systems that continue to privilege white people over all others in this country or we will never be an equitable society.


Furthermore, speaking truth to power and dismantling systems of privilege, is a Christian imperative.


And right now, for white people here, that means checking our privilege, becoming better allies to marginalized people, and embracing militant non-violence the way that Christ showed us.


American theologian Dr. Walter Wink wrote extensively on combatting power structures.


He said, “Neutrality in a situation of oppression always supports the status quo. Reduction of conflict by means of a phony “peace” is not a Christian goal. Justice is the goal, and that may require an acceleration of conflict as a necessary stage in forcing those in power to bring about genuine change.”


Our racism is indoctrinated and systemic. Even if we’re actively fighting against the racism of our families, friends, and peers, white people continue to benefit from centuries of oppression. None of us are immune from exhibiting racist behaviors or from being unhelpful even when their intentions are the opposite.


In other words, if you are white, even if you don’t feel it, you have power. It is critical that we recognize what it means to walk in white skin all the time and begin confronting the systems and structures that harm.


We also must listen to what our friends of colour are saying.


For instance, I am sure that not everyone in our congregation likes Black Lives Matter Toronto. At the same demonstration I attended on February 4, another one of their leaders referred to Prime Minister Trudeau as a “white supremacist” and a “terrorist.”


While people might not like or agree with a leader from Black Lives Matter Toronto, I am going to ask you to listen. This criticism doesn’t come from thin air. It is not like she woke up that morning and thought to herself sunnily, “that Justin Trudeau – he’s a white supremacist.”


From what I can interpret, she is saying that the Prime Minister is not doing anything to dismantle the systems that continue to oppress anyone who is not white.


Refrain from centering yourself in a movement that deserves your support but is not about you and about which you are not an authority. Listen instead of talking.


I would also suggest that it is time for us to embrace what Dr. Wink called “militant non- violence.”


“Jesus,” Dr. Wink wrote, “never displayed that kind of passivity. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, such distortions are clearly neither in Jesus nor his teaching, which, in context, is one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile (Matt. 5:38-41; see also Luke 6:29).iv


Turning the other cheek as Christ taught us, Dr. Wink posited, is a deeply subversive and powerful act.


We have our role models. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cindy Blackstock. Nelson Mandela. Rosa Parks.


I hear that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.”


I have learned so much from this congregation – a group of leaders who have achieved great victories in social justice. I am asking that you dig deep again. Come back with me to square one and help to dismantle systems that make our world less stable – leave it in turmoil.


Because this is not the world that I want for my daughter. I’m sure it is not what you want for any of our children or grandchildren.


There is a chant I hear at marches: no justice, no peace.


I don’t believe we can achieve one without the other and I do not believe that we can do either until we dismantle racism.

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