“Canadian immigration policies are one of the greatest perpetrators of violence against women”

Resisting Deportation: Women Fighting Violence Against Women

By Farrah Miranda

Today is December 6. On this day in 1989, 25 year old Marc Levine, shot and killed Anne-Marie Edward, Anne-Marie Lemay, Annie St Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Daigneault, Barbara Maria Klucznik, Genevieve Bergeron, Helene Colgan, Maryse LeClaire, Maryse Leganiere, Maud Haviernier, Michele Richard, Nathalie Croteau and Sonia Pelletier, screaming “I hate feminists.”

Dozens of vigils, memorials and public events will take place across Canada today remembering the 14 women. We will gather to speak about the ongoing violence perpetuated by men against women and trans people that forms the basis of our rape-culture.

Violence against women is almost entirely carried out by men and supported by government policy. Be it through the Live-In Caregiver Program where women, mostly, are forced to live in the homes of employers with minimal protection or the recent proposed jailing of refugees under a so-called “human smuggling” bill which would have jailed families or the ongoing deportation of women to places of personal and systemic violence — Canadian immigration policies are one of the greatest perpetrators of violence against women.

For those of us that are migrant justice organizers, this December 6 is a moment for pause and reflection. Barely two weeks ago, we in Toronto forced the GTA portion of immigration enforcement to issue a directive to its officers banning them from entering, waiting outside, or contacting for the purposes of identification any place that serves women fighting back and surviving violence.

For now, undocumented women and trans people have the right to leave dangerous situations and seek out essential services and supports at any organization providing anti-violence against women services without fearing detention and deportation. We’ve created a little island of safety, that women survivors of violence can go to knowing full well that the rest of our cities and our neighbourhoods are still places of fear, of harassment, of intimidation by border guards.

And this struggles has been a long time coming.

In February 2004, a 16 year old woman was sexually assaulted in Toronto. After support from trauma counselors, she decided to report to the police, who took the man in to custody. At the same time, the police questioned her and, upon finding that she was undocumented, detained her. On July 28, 2004, she was set to appear to testify against her assailant. Immigration enforcement set the same date for her deportation. Through mass mobilizations, we in No One Is Illegal-Toronto stopped her deportation and were able to ensure immigration status.

But we knew that this happened on the streets of Toronto every day. Women, particularly those with precarious status (refugee claimants, migrant workers, etc) or who were undocumented, were left with little choice but to remain in abusive circumstances rather then seek support or approach the police for fear of detention, deportation and abuse.

It took us over two years to force the Toronto Police Services Board to pass a “Don’t Ask” policy, according to which police officers would not ask for any identification information. This policy was only applicable for “victims and witnesses” of crime, which meant that anyone accused of breaking the law could still be handed over to immigration enforcement and deported before they were actually tried for the alleged crime. Further, the Police Services Board pushed in an addendum to the “Don’t Ask” policy insisting that the policy was applicable “unless the officers have a bonafide reason” to check for identification. Knowing that the police have no intention to try and ensure justice for undocumented women, we withdrew from the campaign in disgust.

Yet reports of violence against women continued. In 2007, soon after the partial Don’t Ask policy was passed by Toronto Police, we met Daniella. In her late 30s, Daniella lived without status and an 8-year old son. She’d left an abusive and violent partner in the Caribbean and arrived in Canada. She applied for refugee status, was denied and was living precariously running a hair dressing business in her home. A few years after her arrival, her ex-partner came to Canada, found her house and moved in, holding her and her son hostage. Unable to go to the police or to go in to a shelter for fear of deportation, Daniella spent two years being assaulted and attacked, until her family found out and were able to break in and free her. While we mobilized to get Daniella status, we met multiple women who had similarly stayed without support or counseling for fear of deportation. What good are all these anti-violence against women services and organizations, they asked us, if they will let immigration enforcement in and report us?

While this was happening, we were introduced to Isablel Garcia and her two children. Isabel was an organizer and worker, who’d fled violence in Mexico, applied for refugee status on the basis of gender violence and like thousands of other women and trans-people had been denied status. Living in Toronto, Isabel was supporting workers in precarious jobs, and was facing deportation. As we began to mobilize publicly to gain status for the Garcia family, and in conversation with Isabel, we invited many women of color activists, feminists and service providers from the anti-violence against women sector to join us. When the courts refused to rule in favor of staying her deportation, we launched the Shelter | Sanctuary | Status Campaign with four demands: 1) Status for the Garcia family, 2) A moratorium on deportation and status for all women survivors of violence, 3) Banning immigration enforcement from all Anti-Violence Against Women spaces and 4) Status for All.

The campaign sent a ripple of energy across the entire women’s movement. Over 120 organizations across Canada, signed on in a matter of days. Our organizers were invited to drop-in spaces, to shelters, to therapy circles and into peoples homes where we shared stories of violence, of being unable to access services, of struggle and of resistance. Led entirely by women of color activists, non-unionized service providers, and soon with advice from undocumented women themselves who could not attend meetings but shared strategies and ideas, the campaign seemed to gain momentum on its own.

Soon, however, we met a road block from a direction we had not expected. Executive Directors and senior managers at shelters and other anti-violence against women agencies saw the unfunded campaign as encroaching on their turf. We were asked to remove the word shelter and sanctuary from the title of the campaign because many of these women in senior positions and well-paying jobs did not want women seeking support to think of anti-violence against women places as sanctuaries. We were told the religious connotations of the term sanctuary were problematic. We were told that if undocumented women found out that certain spaces were accessible to them, they would show up in larger numbers at their gates. These ideas smacked of racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, similar to the lies about immigrants showing up in western countries and availing of services without pay. Our organizers were blocked from many places we were doing workshops in, and many of our contacts with other undocumented women were severed. This was a major blow, a trauma that some of us have not been able to get over to this date. It showed us that in the fight to end violence against women, those with any power (limited as it may seem) will organize to ensure that the status quo remains.

Yet we continued. We met Jane, a middle-aged survivor of violence, and her young daughter. Jane worked three jobs, with her child in day care, yet had been unable to save up the money to move out on her own. Due to lack of adequate housing alternatives, women in shelters that are in fact transitory homes must move every 6-8 months or less, to meet the funding criteria set out. Jane had just moved to a new shelter, when she heard from a worker at the previous shelter that immigration enforcement had come to the previous shelter seeking her out.

For years, we’d met women turned away when they arrived at the doors of anti-violence against women agencies and housing spaces. We knew of shelter workers who were instructed by their managers to take immigration enforcement to the doors of sleeping residents in the middle of the night. Yet these women, for fear of detention or deportation, or for fear of losing their precarious jobs, did not wish to speak publicly. Jane insisted that she wanted to tell her story and within days we organized a press conference.

The feedback was instant, high-pitched and complex. Some media people argued that the story was not clear cut, because Jane had faced violence outside the country and so required less protection. Many women in the upper echelons of the anti-violence against women industry, mostly white, were enraged that a public event had mentioned a shelter without their explicit involvement. Yet from other women, from undocumented people, from our communities we heard clear directions to continue.

Having been cut off from emerging committees of undocumented women in many of the spaces, we turned our focus to immigration enforcement, taking a confrontational delegation to the headquarters of the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre of the Canada Border Services Agency. We demanded a meeting with the Reg Williams, the Director, or vowed to shut down the offices. Within hours of the delegation, our organizers were called by Reg Williams who asked for a meeting.

We met with Reg and laid out our demands. Though initially hesitant, we highlighted the Ontario Victims Bill of Rights which insists “the justice system should operate in a manner that does not increase the suffering of victims of crime and that does not discourage victims of crime from participating in the justice process,” arguing that crime is defined as crime anywhere and that immigration enforcement was shutting out undocumented survivors of violence from seeking support and thus increasing suffering. When the Campaign organizers said they were determined to continue mobilizing publicly, going after immigration enforcement, doing media work, and building a culture of resistance within anti-violence against women spaces, Reg Williams saw no way out and agreed.

This is a small step in our work. The intention of all No One Is Illegal-Toronto campaigns is to open up a discussion on global displacement and local exploitation, on deportations and detentions and lack of status, at sites and places that undocumented people must gather at — schools, post-secondary institutes, health care centres, anti-violence against women agencies, etc. These discussions are intended to create a mobilized community that is willing to fight back against the colonial and capitalist immigration and foreign policy system that is responsible for global environmental degradation, economic inequity, war and the exploitation of people’s labour and lives. Forcing this policy through is an indication that enough women understand and agree that deportation is violence against women, that deportation is violence and must be stopped.

As we remember those that died in the Montreal massacre, as we remember Grise who was deported twice from Canada after being denied refugee status and was brutally assaulted and murdered by the perpetrators she had sought to escape from, as we remember the millions of women around the world, working, surviving and fighting for justice and dignity – let us celebrate our victories and pledge to continue. None of us are free, until all of us are free. No One Is Illegal!

Some names and identifying information in this article have been changed.

Check out this short video announcing the victory barring CBSA Immigration Enforcement from spaces providing anti-violence against women programs and services