Joe Gunn

March 17, 2014

Eight years ago the Catholic bishops of Canada released a pastoral letter about immigrants and refugees. Their main message, in the words of Archbishop Brendan O'Brien, was that "for Christians, welcoming the stranger is an expression of faith."

According to a recent report in The Catholic Register, the CCCB's Commission on Justice and Peace will soon release another statement on this important topic.

So what has changed since 2006, and what might we expect to see in a pastoral letter that addresses the Canadian Church's ministry with newcomers?

Francisco Rico is a refugee himself and co-director of the Refugee Centre of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. The FCJ project is comprised of three houses in Toronto for refugee women and children.

Rico has high hopes for the forthcoming pastoral letter from Canada's bishops, since, he says, we now have "the refugee pope" in Rome. Rico says "Pope Francis is easy to identify with" since he has visited refugees, engaged with them and spoken out publicly on their behalf.

Rico, a former president of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), was disappointed that Canada's bishops refused to join almost 50 national leaders in signing a Dec. 10, 2013 letter that encouraged the federal government to respect refugee rights.

The letter said, "Canada is failing to respect refugees' human rights. . . . Fewer refugees are being resettled to Canada. The federal government recently made dramatic cuts to basic health care for refugees. Refugee claimants race an unbeatable clock to gather evidence.

"Some refugees now face mandatory detention and a five-year bar on being reunited with their family in Canada. Others are denied the right to an appeal because their countries of origin have been arbitrarily deemed 'safe.' We live in a climate of fear and negative rhetoric. Canada is now a less welcoming country."

The CCCB declined to sign, saying the process did not allow enough time for consultation. Notwithstanding, signatories such as the Anglican primate, the moderators of both the United and Presbyterian churches and the national Lutheran bishop were not similarly constrained.

Rico hopes Canada's bishops will themselves soon consult on the contents of their forthcoming pastoral letter with Catholics actively engaged in ministry with refugees.

He notes that Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc has already consulted with religious congregations of women concerning how governments should act to minimize human trafficking during the upcoming Pan-Am Games.

Rico recalls that drafts of the pastoral letter of 2006 were presented by the bishops for feedback in consultations with Catholic refugee workers in both Toronto and Montreal. The final 2006 statement was therefore much improved, and outlined a number of important political recommendations, including calls to:

  • Abrogate the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States.
  • Introduce the appeal system for refugee claimants.
  • Eliminate obstacles which impede the speedy reunification of families.
  • Reduce the waiting period for collective sponsorships.
  • Reinforce laws on human trafficking, particularly measures to protect victims.


Since few of these goals have actually been achieved, it might be expected that the bishops will renew their prophetic calls for reform to the system. However, much has changed in the interim, and new issues have emerged that merit attention in any upcoming pastoral letter on this theme.

For example, new restrictions introduced by the federal government have caused a dramatic decrease in refugee claims, which were down by 50 per cent in the first half of 2013. The practice of designating 37 countries of origin as "safe" has resulted in new difficulties for asylum seekers from those nations.

As well, the Temporary Foreign Worker program has increased by 70 per cent in the last five years, such that several provinces now receive more temporary foreign workers than permanent residents.


Finally, when the federal minister severely cut health coverage for certain refugees, many mainly faith-based and charitable sponsoring groups found themselves newly exposed to potentially catastrophic costs. Several provinces (Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan) should be congratulated for covering these costs, but Ottawa should not be allowed to renege on its responsibility.

Francisco Rico believes that Canada should prioritize those refugees most in need of protection, beyond, for example, the current, albeit necessary, focus on Iraqi Christians. He wants the Church to oppose the politicization of the refugee selection process. People in refugee ministry await the bishops' letter with an attitude of prayerful hope.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)