REFUGEE HEALTH CUTS — Some 300 people turned up for a “Rally for an inclusive Canada” at the constituency office of MP Kelly Block in response to a controversial mailout about ending health care benefits for refugees. (Yaworski photo)
Rally held in support of health care coverage for refugees
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
SASKATOON — A Saskatchewan MP’s controversial mail-out about refugee health care cuts was the focus of a protest rally Oct. 20 in Saskatoon, where speakers condemned its divisive tone and misleading information.
The Rally for an Inclusive Canada involved some 300 people of all ages, singing, carrying signs and adding their signatures to a “we disagree” banner draped in front of MP Kelly Block’s Saskatoon constituency office.
The recent mailout from Block to her constituents in the riding of Rosetown-Saskatoon-Biggar featured a headline that read: “Ending Unfair Benefits for Refugee Claimants” before stating: “New arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid by your tax dollars. They’ve had free prescriptions.” In bold letters it then states: “Not anymore.” The flyer included a box where constituents could check that they agree: “newcomers don’t deserve more benefits than Canadians” or disagree by saying: “refugee claimants should get dental, vision and pharmacare even if I don’t.”
“When I saw this, I was just so upset that the government would actually send out a message boasting about having cut services to these vulnerable people,” said Dr. Ryan Meili, a family doctor who works with refugee patients.
This June, under the leadership of Minister Jason Kenney, the federal government ended the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), cutting health coverage to refugees in various categories, including those who have arrived in Canada but are not yet part of a provincial health plan. In other cases, the federal government ended extended benefits for government-sponsored or privately sponsored refugees — benefits which were similar to those received by low-income Canadians. Some of those benefits were later reinstated to government-referred refugees, but are still greatly reduced from what they were in the past.
“We need to keep the pressure on Ms. Block to apologize for these divisive and inflammatory comments,” said Meili. “We need the IFHP to be completely reinstated. We need to get back to the level of refugee health care that members of one of our most vulnerable populations really need.”
Speakers pointed to the flyer from Block as part of a xenophobic and divisive government strategy.
Pediatrics resident Dr. Mahli Brindamour, a member of the immigrant and refugee health committee at the University of Saskatchewan college of medicine, related her own experience this week, after being interviewed about the flyer.
“I received a phone call a few days ago at my house, and a lady asked me why I thought refugees should receive health care benefits that she as a senior having lived all her life in Canada did not get. She was pretty mad. I said that I thought she should get them, too; that everybody should get them, and that she was right to be mad that she didn’t receive the health care that she deserved. She then got even angrier, and she told me that I should go back to my own country,” Brindamour said.
“This phone call I received is exactly the reaction that Conservatives were hoping to get,” she added. “They are intentionally sowing division for their own political gain. This offensive flyer fosters intolerance by pitting Canadians against each other, and against one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.”
The government has stated that the cuts to health care for refugees were made to improve the fairness of the system, reduce costs and protect public health. Brindamour asserted that the strategy will “absolutely not” achieve any of these three goals.
“What is more unfair than denying access to health care to one of the world’s most vulnerable populations?” she queried. “Prior to the cuts, they did not receive more than what any low income Canadian received. Today, after the cuts, they are receiving much less.”
Cutting health care to vulnerable populations actually increases costs, she added. “It increases emergency room visits for conditions that could have been either prevented or diagnosed earlier; it leads to unnecessary visits, unnecessary invasive tests and lengthy hospitalizations, and more weight on our system.”
Canada has a long and proud history of providing refuge to men, women and children from around the world who are fleeing war, famine, political persecution, violence or torture, Brindamour said. “Part of that refuge includes living in harmony and standing up for each other. Providing health care to refugees is not only the privilege and the compassionate act of a rich nation. It’s also sound public health and economic policy.”
Mark Bigland-Pritchard delivered a message to the crowd from his daughter and other students at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, who are engaged in a “fifty-nine cent campaign” to protest the health cuts for refugees, since the cost saving amounts to about 59 cents per taxpayer per year. The idea of the campaign is to mail that amount in coins to the prime minister.
“Mennonites came here as refugees,” pointed out Bigland-Pritchard, adding that Jesus Christ was also a refugee to Egypt at a most vulnerable time in his life.
“It is both unhelpful and dishonest to frame refugee health care in a manner that seeks to pit Canadians against refugees. Furthermore, using biased stereotyping and racist undertones only displays ignorance of who refugees are and the challenges they face. This does not create space for healthy dialogue,” Bigland-Pritchard said, quoting the message from the Winnipeg students.
Social justice advocate Nayyar Javed also addressed the rally, saying: “I am inspired by the young, old, brown, white faces who are here to say: ‘Our Canada is an inclusive Canada.’ ”
She suggested that MP Block take what was spent on the printing and distribution of the flyer, and give it to the Saskatoon Refugee Coalition, a group which understands what challenges refugees face, and the dangerous, life-threatening situations that they are fleeing.
“The Refugee Coalition is committed to the Canadian values of care, compassion and responsibility,” said Javed.