Sanctuary Cities

The complainant, Steven Austin, thought a story about Montreal declaring itself a sanctuary city lacked balance and did not provide enough information. I agreed that only one perspective was presented and it should have provided more.


You thought a story that aired on The National on February 20, 2017 concerning Montreal city council declaring itself a “sanctuary city” lacked balance. You said you believed there were many Canadians who oppose the concept of sanctuary cities, and that none of those voices were present in the report. The only critical presence came through a statement from U.S. President Donald Trump who criticized American cities which have declared themselves sanctuary cities for undocumented refugees. The term is understood to mean that undocumented people would have access to city services. You pointed out that criticism of the Montreal decision came from advocates who thought the city had not gone far enough. You characterized the vote in Montreal as a “reckless and defiant action that can and will breed lawlessness.” You felt said the reporter Alison Northcott should have done more research and “covered all aspects of the debate and potential dangers of sanctuary cities.”


The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your concerns. He told you that the purpose of the story was to “explain the situation in Montreal. He mentioned this included “interviews with Mayor Denis Coderre, people who would be personally affected by the designation, as well as providing the viewpoint of some opposed to the action of the city.”

He informed you that he appreciated your suggestion to go into more depth about the issue, but that “it is often the case in our news coverage that we do not explore an issue as fully as some viewers would like.”


CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices require CBC journalism to present a range of views and perspectives on matters of public policy. It states that those perspectives should be achieved over a “reasonable period of time.”

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The JSP does not spell out what a reasonable period of time might be. There is logic to that because there are many factors that go into consideration of what that should be. Some factors should be how controversial the subject is, how often it has been covered, and as the policy says, taking into account the relevance of some views and how widespread they are. When The National aired the story about the Montreal city council decision there were several other stories prominent in the news at that time - the growing number of illegal refugee claimants crossing into Canada and the actions of the U.S. President, Donald Trump, to attempt to limit migrants from a group of predominantly Muslim countries. The U.S. president had also talked a great deal about going after illegal immigrants, and had mentioned he might withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. While the treatment of refugees and immigrants is not a new policy discussion, this iteration was fairly recent. Montreal was the fifth Canadian city to declare sanctuary status. It is likely this was a concept not all that familiar to many citizens of this country. When that is the case, it is important to provide a range of perspectives in each report.

For Mr. Spandier to simply tell you that there were critics in the report does not answer the substance of your complaint. Leaving aside your characterization of the decision, there was room in this story for comment from those who think this is an ill-conceived idea, or who could point out the potential problems it might create. Viewers of The National that night were not given a range of ideas and information to form their own judgments about the value of the Montreal declaration.

Reviewing CBC coverage of the Montreal declaration, I found more rounded and robust coverage on the news website. That makes sense, as television news stories generally do not provide the same amount of detail that a printed version can. The website provided two stories, published a day apart and linked. The first one focused on the city council decision, and like Ms. Northcott’s piece, focused on criticism from advocates for refugees. The piece published the next day, entitled Sanctuary city movement grows in Canada but could bring tension with police, immigration officials provided some critical analysis which contributed to a different perspective. It begins:

The uncertainty surrounding U.S. immigration policies has prompted a number of Canadian cities to declare themselves sanctuaries for undocumented migrants.

But as cities move to protect migrants from deportation orders, it is creating the prospect for tensions between municipal governments, law enforcement and federal immigration officials.

Mr. Spandier has a point that each story cannot go into the depth some might prefer, but editorial judgment comes to bear in deciding how much is necessary. This story was brief and did not provide much depth or context. While realistically a piece this short can’t get into much detail on that broader question, some indication would have been useful. I spoke with the reporter and the producer of the piece, and they tell me they contacted both the Montreal police and the RCMP for reaction but did not hear back from either force before deadline. As an aside, they also told me they were assigned the story late in the day and had to file more than one piece. That is the reality of daily news, but it does not excuse the fact that there is an absence of a range of perspectives or at least some reference in the script to some of the challenges to the concept of “sanctuary cities.”


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman