Bill C-31, an Assault on Refugee Rights and Canadian Values

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How do you feel about your tax dollars being used to pay for cancer treatment and wheelchairs for a refugee? If you believe, as generations of Canadians before have, that compassion and respect are fundamental national values; you probably feel pretty good about it. Canada is after all a country which (with the exception of First Nations peoples) was built by immigrants and refugees fleeing oppression and deprivation in their home countries in search of a better life.

Without compassion and a sense of fundamental humanity shown towards the original Canadian refugees, this country likely would not exist as it does today as one of the most affluent and stable countries in the world. It might not even have continued to exist at all, riven by internal divisions and without a tolerant and inclusive national identity, it may have been swallowed up by its larger and more aggressive Southern neighbour.

Care and compassion towards new Canadians is a national strength and a source of moral pride, but new legislation by the federal Conservative government poses a direct threat to this admirable Canadian legacy.

Bill C-31, which passed through Parliament and is now in front of Senate represents a fundamental attack on the basic human rights of refugees in Canada

Bill C-31, which passed through Parliament and is now in front of Senate represents a fundamental attack on the basic human rights of refugees in Canada. The bill cuts all extended-care health benefits to refugees and asylum seekers, including access to prescription drugs, vision and dental care, and physical mobility devices such as crutches and wheelchairs. Only those refugees with diseases which may be considered infectious will receive medical care, a policy which in effect says “we don’t care if you get ill or die, unless your illness may catch onto us”. Such a callous, “shut the door behind you” attitude is not representative of the values that make Canada great nor does it represent the type of moral country Canada should aspire to be.

At the forefront of the growing protests against this cut to vital health services to refugees have been doctors, the ones who have experiential knowledge of the circumstances and needs of Canada’s refugee community and the ones who would be forced to deny refugees lifesaving medical care if they appealed to them. As Dr. Mark Tyndall, the head of the infectious disease treatment center at Ottawa Hospital put it, “We are launching into an uncontrolled, disastrous, human health experience by arbitrarily denying life-saving medical care to some of the most vulnerable and traumatized people in the whole world.”

The counter argument by the government and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is that refugees will now simply be receiving the same level of free medical care as the rest of Canadians. As Kenney put it, refugees will now have access to the same level of care as low and middle income Canadians also adding “I wonder why these doctors aren’t raising the same questions about [the medical benefits] taxpaying Canadians receive.”

His comments at a glance seem to be a crude attempt to pit Canadians against refugees by suggesting they are receiving a free ride on their expense, while drawing a false equivalency between the circumstances of established income-earning Canadians and oftentimes destitute refugees starting from scratch in a new country.

This policy will effectively condemn people with serious illnesses to death, regardless if they are women or children or if their disease would be easily treatable with the correct medication

The fact is that not providing these healthcare services to established Canadians has minimal effect, as most Canadians receive health benefits through their employers and otherwise have the means to afford them, whereas denying them to refugees is catastrophic as they often lack the legal status to work as well as the base of financial resources to pay for healthcare emergencies. This policy will effectively condemn people with serious illnesses to death, regardless if they are women or children or if their disease would be easily treatable with the correct medication.

Despite being among the most vulnerable and suffering people on the planet, in the new Canada if refugees can’t pay they will die even if help is readily available for them. As healthcare worker Mado Mushimiyamana put it, if refugees will consciously be denied lifesaving care “You should let them die where they are rather than come to be killed silently in this country.”

What does this type of policy say about the future of Canada and the kind of country it wants to be in the 21st century? The hard-earned reputation of this country as a tolerant and humane place is potentially threatened by this type of callous and cruel policy targeted towards the most vulnerable people in society. To the credit of Canadians everywhere there have been large protests throughout the country led primarily by medical professionals decrying the federal government’s assault on the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to turn back the tide. Canadians need to take a stand and make clear that their country is better than this.

Bill C-31 should not only be an issue of concern to refugees and their advocates, but to all Canadians who care about their national identity

This country was built in large part by the efforts of refugees fleeing famine, war and disease in their homelands and we would not be what we are today if previous generations had not helped these new arrivals with a leg-up instead of exploiting them and pushing them to the margins of society when they were in need. Bill C-31 should not only be an issue of concern to refugees and their advocates, but to all Canadians who care about their national identity and who sincerely believe in the values which made this country what it is today.

Published at: http://prism-magazine.com/2012/06/bill-c-31-an-assault-on-refugee-rights-and-canadian-values/

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