Skip to content

Harper’s Canada: using omnibus budget bills to deny health & social assistance to refugees

This past Friday, the Federal Court of Appeal made the decision to uphold a ruling from earlier this summer which stated that the Conservative government must reverse its unconstitutional, “cruel and unusual” cuts to refugee health care. The federal government had been trying to delay having to reinstate the Interim Federal Health Program, but this ruling against the federal government gives them until November 4th to restore access to these health benefits for refugees.

People from all walks of society have been protesting these cuts to the most basic of human rights in Canada. Upholding this decision is a major victory against the xenophobia, racism and outright callousness displayed by the federal government.

It has been pointed out that, “since the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program were announced two years ago, many refugees and refugee claimants have experienced denial of service and delays in care, with negative consequences to their health… The refugee health care cuts are just one example of the Conservative government’s targeted denial of health and social services to migrants in Canada. It is also estimated that 500 000 people in Canada live without health insurance due to their immigration status.” It has been pointed out that with our current government there has been an increasingly regressive immigration system (refugees are just one more group being denied health care because of their immigration status) where healthcare is used as a punitive tool towards newcomers. Canada is country that prides itself on a universal healthcare system based on need and not ability to pay.  Sadly, contrary to this fundamental principle of our healthcare system, for newcomers our government seems all too willing to base healthcare allocation on immigration status and not need.

So, it comes as no surprise that a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander saw the court’s decision as flawed and stated that the Harper government, “will continue to do what’s necessary to protect the interests of Canadian taxpayers and genuine refugees.”  This is the opposite of Justice Mactavish’s 268-page decision which rejected the government’s claims of abusing the system, and stated: “It puts their lives at risk and perpetuates the stereotypical view that they [refugees] are cheats and queue-jumpers.”

Yet, the federal government is not willing to let this issue rest.  Predicting that the Federal Court of Appeal would not be ruling in the Conservative government’s favour (due to the predatory nature of their bill), a private member bill – Bill C-585 -had been snaking its way through parliament to amend the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act. This bill would allow provinces to individually impose residency requirements for eligibility for social assistance benefits and restrict access to those benefits by refugees.  It would result in social assistance to many refugee claimants including, “those whose bid for asylum was rejected but appeals are pending, those who are on a Humanitarian and Compassionate (H&C) release, those who are undergoing a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, and even those who have yet to have their claim heard.”  To put it in a simpler way, the federal government is passing the buck to the provinces to deny needed welfare provisions to claimants who are refugees, and/or those who are not yet permanent residents.  At the end of the day, this will make it substantially harder for refugee claimants to obtain social assistance and it would, “change the rules governing Ottawa’s financial transfer payments to the provinces that help pay for social programs. Under current legislation, provincial governments are barred from setting a minimum residency requirement before a refugee claimant can qualify for welfare.”

To rub salt in the wound, embedding such major changes in a private members bills, as opposed to government bills, is a less transparent process that undergoes less scrutiny; a private members bill is usually put forward to address issues of regional significance. What this comes down to is the federal government playing petty games to make the life of refugees, vulnerable non-citizens, or those with precarious immigration status, miserable.  These changes being proposed are needlessly spiteful to those who are often the most marginalized and affected by poverty. To compound the matter, they will affect people when they need assistance the most.

A recent article in the Toronto Star spoke with former refugees who stated, “Social assistance is the lifeline for refugees when they first arrive in the country, without family, friends or any social support. How are they going to survive with no food, no clothes and money for transportation?” Further, another former refugee said, ““Many refugees have survived persecution, trauma and violence. They are already suffering when they get here. This is going to incur more stress, more health problem and mental harm on them.”

While work permits take time to be approved and issued, families end up with no source of income for months.  People coming as refugees are fleeing persecution, and many of these people have the burden of PTSD which makes finding and holding onto a job difficult without appropriate health care.  This bill removes vital support at the time when people need it the most, and many will be unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves and their families. We know that poverty leads to poor health outcomes, so denying basic social benefits when people are the most vulnerable will only exacerbate this issue. This bill is simply cruel.

This bill not only restricts access to health and social assistance to groups that are already marginalized, but contravenes Canada’s international human rights obligations. It has been pointed out that, “as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Canada has legal human rights obligations towards refugees who seek asylum in our country. Both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also require that Canada ensure everyone’s basic needs are met, without discrimination.” Others such as Amnesty International have weighed in that, “Deliberate attempts at worsening the lives of refugee claimants, who are already in situations of extreme precariousness, by restricting their access to social assistance violates Canada’s protection obligations under the Refugee Convention.”

Now, the Conservative government has returned with another omnibus budget bill (Bill C-43, at almost 500 pages this time). Much like previous installments, this is what the Conservative government does when it wants to make major changes to policy and law without having serious debate or oversight.  Not surprisingly, buried in this abuse of process and contempt for parliament is bill C-585 (sections 172 and 173). For a substantive and thoughtful backgrounder on what this will mean for refugee claimants please see here.

The Council of Canadians, along with many of our allies, are calling on the federal government to remove sections 172 and 173 from Bill C-43.  Later this week we will be joining with our allies in an open letter to the Minister of Finance, highlighting how this process is wholly inappropriate with such a critical issue as access to basic social benefit.

In the meantime there are a few things you can do:

  1. If your local MP is planning on supporting Bill C-43, call or email them asking them to outline if they will support removing sections 172 and 173.

  2. Any person or organization can make a written submission to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. This committee will be reviewing the relevant sections of the Budget.

The House of Commons guidelines for submitting a brief can be found here. There are numerous guidelines for submitting a brief either as an individual or organization so please make sure to review the information carefully.  As well, note that briefs will only be distributed to the Committee once they are in both official languages, so unilingual briefs must be submitted with enough time for the Committee Clerk to arrange for translation. As the Committee will only be considering written submissions until November 20, please submit your brief as soon as possible). The submissions do not have to be lengthy as long as they outline your concerns (i.e., sections 172 and 173 of Budget Bill C-43 which can be found here). Written submissions should be addresses to the Clerk of the Committee, Mike MacPherson, whose contact information is available here.

It is urgent that we let the Conservative government know that Canadians will not accept this backdoor attempt to deny access to health and social assistance to refugees. Please contact your MP and let them know that you demand a more just and humane Canada.