By PATRICK HUNTER
The Federal Court has ruled that the Harper Government’s decision to reduce health care provisions for refugees and refugee claimants is “cruel and unusual”. This ruling, although it responds to a couple of specific cases, was enough to so categorize the decision by the Harper Government which claims that it was saving taxpayers’ money when it introduced the plan two years ago.
This is the latest in a number of rebuffs to federal government’s policies that have plagued the Harper people over the past few months. The Supreme Court told Harper that his choice of Marc Nadon to fill a Quebec seat on the bench was not on. That led to a revelation of a spat with the Court’s Chief Justice. Another was the Abolition of the Early Parole Act – designed to delay the eligibility for parole of “first-time, non-violent offenders”. The Act would have also made that provision retroactive.
Governments have a way of trying to make a few abuses of policies seem to be the norm when they want to change those policies for other reasons. We have seen charges of abuses of welfare programs, for example, being used to justify reduction in eligibility. We have seen tinkering with immigration when they want to reduce or change the eligibility of those who wish to come to Canada. Many of those changes affect the country of origin of certain prospective immigrants. Increasing the costs of applying for immigrant status, for example, is one. (This is one we cannot really blame on the Tories. It was a Liberal government initiative.)
Governments – and they all practice it, regardless of the party in power – use this public relations tool of highlighting the negative or the abuses, which may exist to some extent, to introduce changes which, in many cases, do not necessarily stem the abuses. That is because the main intent of the change was to be more restrictive in the overall policy direction.
So, as part of its austerity program, the so-called saving taxpayers’ money syndrome, the Harper government chose to cut back on health care supports for refugees.
It is important to understand the context of who is a refugee. In this column, I may not do justice to the definitions, and I would refer you to the Canadian Council on Refugees’ website for more detailed information. So, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his/her country to escape persecution. A “refugee claimant” is someone who has fled his/her country and is seeking the protection of another. In this case, there is a determination process which, in Canada, is the Immigration and Refugee board.
As one would assume, most refugees and refugee claimants often have very little or no possession with them, having perhaps left their country of origin in a hurry. Countries which sign and ratify the United Nations’ Convention on Refugees are expected to make some provisions available to these individuals and families in the interim, until their status has been determined. Some of these provisions include a permit to seek employment, assistance with healthcare and permission to enrol their children in schools.
Yes, there have been, and still are, people who may register a claim for refugee status which prove to be unfounded. And, of course, there have been occasions when claimants failed to convince the determination process of a legitimate claim, were returned to their country of origin with dire consequences. It is not a perfect system. Some of it relies on trust.
Nevertheless, the fundamental value of the Convention is that people are subject to persecution in war-torn countries, for example, and the opportunity to provide protection when requested should be open to them.
In one of its communique dealing with the healthcare cuts’ impact, the Canadian Council on Refugees (CCR) notes that “the IFH (Interim Federal Health program) never covered more than essential services. Figures show that refugee claimants generally needed very little health care and cost the taxpayer significantly less than the average Canadian”. Medical professionals, and particularly those who deal with refugees, have indicated that the cuts were harmful and had protested the cuts since their inception.
The minister responsible for immigration has indicated that the government will appeal the decision of the court.
Is it me or is this another example of a sense of “meanness” being demonstrated by the Conservative government? It should be embarrassed by the “cruel and unusual” description in the Federal Court’s judgement. Why do they insist on making matters worse by deciding to appeal?
Yes, there are a few Canadians who vocally express their concern about immigrants and refugees and the false sense that we are being overwhelmed in that realm. Nevertheless, it is always disconcerting when the government chooses a response that would have a negative impact on those most vulnerable. Is that the new-age definition of “Canadian values”?