NOTE: This is a guest post from Ritika Goel, a family physician and public health professional in Toronto.
On April 25, Jason Kenney, our Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, announced cuts to Canada’s refugee health insurance, to go into effect the day before Canada Day. What followed has been an unprecedented mobilization across the country denouncing these cuts.
Arguments have been made on multiple bases: the unfairness and cruelty of these cuts, the harm to the health of individual refugees, the public health issues that affect others in Canada and the increased costs which will be borne from unnecessary preventable disease complications. Many have also noted that these cuts to refugee healthcare fit in with this government’s ongoing attack on migrants, be it the halt on family sponsorships, the decrease in pay for temporary foreign workers, the lowered acceptance rates for refugees or the ongoing marginalization of undocumented people.
Since the cuts were announced, umpteen letters have been written to Kenney including two jointly signed by the major health professional organizations in Canada representing doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, social workers and optometrists. On May 11, ninety doctors occupied an MP’s office in Toronto. Health providers across the country have been involved in public protests and disruptions of Conservative ministers‘ speeches. A former refugee too engaged in such a disruption and got arrested. A monitoring tool has been developed to keep track of the inevitable negative health impacts resulting from this policy. The Anglican Diocese in Manitoba are suing the federal government over costs borne to private sponsors of refugees. A campaign called the ‘We Refuse to Cooperate Campaign‘ has been launched for people to post up their photos showing their own reasons for denouncing the refugee health cuts. Another campaign has people sending in 59 cents to Stephen Harper to replace the supposed savings from these cuts. Countless interviews and media stunts have been done, articles written and op-eds published.
It would appear that everyone agrees — these cuts are bad idea, yet Kenney has responded to this mobilization only by continually misleading people. He says that he is only cutting ‘gold-plated’ healthcare for ‘bogus refugees and illegal immigrants’. He has even put a petition on his own website thanking himself for these cuts leading to some embarrassing news coverage.
So What Do The Cuts Really Mean?
Despite what Kenney would have us believe, these cuts have already begun to cause irreparable harm. Refugees in Canada belong to two groups: first are the government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees who are deemed refuges on arrival, and second are refugee claimants who come to Canada seeking asylum, often escaping persecution and violence. These cuts to refugee health mean that all refugees, except the government-assisted, will no longer have access to medicines, dental care and vision care –something all provinces provide for low-income people. These cuts also mean refugee claimants from certain countries will get essentially no healthcare whatsoever — once this list of so-called “safe countries” is released, it is widely expected that we will turn our back on Roma refugee claimants from Hungary and other European nations, where clear persecution of this population has been documented by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. On a human level, what these cuts mean for people is a deterioration in their health status, an increase in fear and vulnerability, as well as on a societal level, an increase in preventable downstream costs for us all.
So What You Can Do?
With so much happening it may seem difficult to get plugged in, but it’s as easy as ever! Below are some easy ways to get involved.
1. Post up your own photo to the We Refuse to Cooperate Campaign.
2. Send Harper 59 cents as part of the 59 cents campaign.
3. Confront a Conservative minister at a public event.
4. If you’re a health provider, use the monitoring tool to document impacts.
5. Get your community group, organization or workplace to sign a letter, write a press release or hold a press conference denouncing these cuts.
7. Contact your local MPP to discuss how costs will be downloaded to the provinces.
8. Support and promote existing organizations working on these issues such as Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, Health for All, No One is Illegal, Canadian Council for Refugees, Health Justice Collective, Canadian Doctors for Medicare and others.
9. Come up with your own campaign or individual way to show you oppose cuts to refugee health.
10. Sign the petition on Care2.
Why Does Mobilization Matter?
While no major changes have been formally announced, we have noted some interesting developments in the course of events since April 25. In Ontario, Deb Matthews, the Minister of Health has come out publicly against these cuts. In Quebec, the province has stated they will pay for the healthcare services of refugees until another solution is found. The Citizenship and Immigration Canada website mysteriously changed one day so government-assisted refugees were no longer among the affected groups. This change was of course denied by the Minister as a change. Would all these things have happened if politicians were not being held accountable by the mobilization we have seen? Unlikely!
So maybe change is possible? However, even if we see no changes, we should not be disheartened. If nothing else, we are all exercising our democratic rights to free speech and realizing how difficult it is to change an ideological stance. Through these actions, we have developed networks of providers, organizations, community groups and community members who are engaged and enraged. These are the seeds of revolutionary change and will allow us to continue to work together to address the cuts to refugee health, the attack on migrants and broader issues of social justice.
Ritika Goel is a family physician and public health professional in Toronto. Check out her blog at righttohealth.ca and follow her on Twitter: @RitikaGoelTO
Photo credit: Sardar Saadi