As a medical student at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, I am taught to abide by our adapted adage “it takes a community to raise a medical student.” It is fitting, then, that the best education I have received in recent weeks regarding health and human rights has come from outside of the medical school.
In light of a recent announcement by Jason Kenney, the federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, I am now aware that Canada has an Interim Federal Health Program that provides temporary basic health-care coverage to government-assisted refugees and refugee claimants. It includes coverage similar to what is provided through a provincial or territorial health insurance plan, as well as coverage for supplemental health-care services including dentistry and vision care, and medications. In short, it offers health care, and a better life, to those who come to our shores in need. In other words, it’s pretty Canadian.
However, Kenney has recently announced a series of looming changes to this program that will strip government-assisted refugees and claimants of medication coverage, as well as access to hospital, physician and nurse services.
Do we want our immigration policies to be economic first, and humanitarian second?
Regarding the proposed changes, Kenney said, “Our government’s objective is to bring about transformational changes to our immigration system so that it meets Canada’s economic needs.”
Which begs the question: Do we want our immigration policies to be economic first, and humanitarian second?
Even if we choose the former, denying health care to many eventual permanent residents now might translate into more spending in the long run, in order to ameliorate the illness and disease for which the proposed changes will be creating opportunity.
According to Kenney, “Canadians are a very generous people and Canada has a generous immigration system … However, we do not want to ask Canadians to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves.” Is the minister correct? Are we too generous?
Regardless, this statement may be misleading. As the Canadian Council for Refugees points out, the health care dollars we’ve been investing in refugee claimants amount to roughly $660 per refugee claimant per year.
But these people are choosing to come to our country, right? Yes. We do no better than the governments these people have left behind when we deny them a most basic human right.
We could thank Kenney for trying on behalf of our federal government to keep our immigration system from being abused, but not at such a cost to those truly in need. While it may not be his intent, the minister is praising our generosity as Canadians while simultaneously encouraging us to adopt immigration policies that promise a body count.
The proposed changes to the Interim Federal Health Program will leave thousands of human beings without access to life-sustaining medications and other basic health services.
The most important thing I’ve learned as a medical student at a school with a social accountability mandate to serve those most in need, is that disease and poverty both cause and worsen one another.
When we deny anyone access to health care, we risk condemning them to a vicious circle of sickness and poverty. Poverty seeks out those without access to health care, just as disease makes a preferential option for the poor.
As generous Canadians, so should we.
Joe Oliver is a senior medical student at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. He would like to acknowledge Dr. Andrea Hunter, pediatrician in Hamilton, Ont., whose work in pediatric refugee and immigrant health inspired this piece.
Posted by Heather Green-Oliver