Refugees are a big focus for the current Conservative government in Ottawa.
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that in 1986 the "Canadian people" won the Nansen Refugee Award for "outstanding service to the cause of refugees." This award is handed out annually by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, based in Geneva.
That happened way back when Brian Mulroney was a Progressive Conservative Prime Minister, and his Ministers of Immigration were folks such as Flora MacDonald and Benoît Bouchard.
The Conservatives in power now are of a different breed and their focus on refugees is almost entirely negative.
Now, to give the government its due: the new refugee law, passed last spring as Bill C-31, does do some good things.
Notably, the new law establishes a Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) as part of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Under the pre-C-31 regime (which is still in force) when would-be refugees are turned down their only avenue of appeal is to go to the Federal Court. In such cases, the Court has the limited authority to consider legal, not substantive issues.
The RAD will be able to look at all the facts and evidence and the reasoning of the IRB's original decision and determine whether the Board made any sort of error. The RAD will then be able to reverse the original decision.
A little give, a lot of take
The problem is that this government gives a bit, but it takes a lot.
For instance, the new law creates a two tier system.
Would-be refugees from countries that the Minister of Immigration unilaterally designates as "safe" will not have access to the RAD, and will only be able to appeal to the Federal Court once they have returned to their countries of origin.
And that's only one of the tough measures the Government brought in to stem the flow of so-called "bogus refugees."
Outside the framework of Bill C-31, the Government announced last spring that it would, with nary a minute's consultation, radically change the Interim Federal Health Program (IFH) for refugees.
The IFH has allowed people seeking status as refugees in Canada to get both primary and preventive care, as well necessary surgeries, drugs and other medical goods such as eyeglasses.
What the IFH provides is, in essence, the same as the health benefits the provinces and territories provide to all of their people on social assistance.
And the IFH also mirrors what a great many Canadians receive through a combination of Canada’s universal health care system and supplementary group or employer–provided insurance.
Saving money or stirring up resentment?
Cutting refugee health is supposed to save money
But many doctors contest the government's claim that the cuts will result in the advertized savings of $100 million over five years. They point out that the $100 million figure does not take into account the significant extra costs the provinces will now have to assume.
The money seems to be only an incidental consideration, in any case.
Just today (Wednesday), the Government somehow effortlessly found a greater sum, $155 million over five years, for cyber-security.
The real motive for cutting refugee health appears to be to tap into what Conservatives evidently believe is some sort of widespread resentment toward refugees lurking out there in the general populace.
As a policy initiative, changes to refugee health are an extremely tiny piece of the government’s legislative program. The cuts will save rather little, if anything at all, and they are not even part of any legislation -- not part of last spring's the budget and not part of the new refugee law.
Nonetheless, when Conservative fundraisers telephone notional supporters, what issue do they raise right off the bat? You guessed it, the cuts to refugee health.
One recipient of such a call reports that when asked what he thought about refugees receiving health care that other Canadians have to pay for he answered that he did not think the refugee health services should be cut. Rather, he continued, he wanted to see such health services extended to all Canadians, and as soon as possible.
The Conservatives' playbook did not anticipate that response.
Nor did it take account of the widespread outrage at Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kelly Block's household mailer proudly boasting about the end to benefits for refugees.
Many people in her riding of Saskatoon-Biggar took exception to what they called the negative and racist tone of her mailer. And they disagreed with the idea that Canada cannot afford to treat people who come here for fear of persecution on a par with Canadian recipients of social assistance.
Seems like a Party-wide pitch to supporters
Block didn't apologize, but said the whole mailer thing was simply an exercise in public education about Government policy. And it was all her idea, she said, not the party's.
That latter claim seemed disingenuous to New Democratic Immigration Critic Jinny Sims.
Sims pointed out on Tuesday that Block was not the only Conservative MP to promote the cutting of refugee health as a great Conservative accomplishment.
Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid sent a mailer to his constituents saying in big black letters "End Gold-plated Refugee Health Benefits."
Reid's mailer goes on to talk about the fact that "many taxpaying Canadians do not receive these benefits" and to make the familiar though contested claim that cutting refugee health will save $100 million (over five years, which Reid fails to mention).
You would think that this government might find something in its massive omnibus budget bill worth promoting.
How about the massive cuts to environmental oversight and regulation, for instance?
Or the "streamlining" of Employment Insurance?
Or the plan to raise the age for Old Age Security by two years?
The Conservatives have obviously concluded that nurturing a backlash and then appealing to it pays.
We'll see how well it works.
No group of Canadians has been more outraged by the cuts to refugee health than the usually quiescent community of physicians.
Many dcotors are particularly aggrieved that pregnant refugee claimants are being denied access to their gynecologists in the midst of their treatment.
Other refugee claimants have had to abandon chemotherapy.
Soon, people coming from countries on the "safe list" will not even get minimal health care such as doctor’s visits. They will only be treated on an emergency basis if their conditions can be deemed to pose a danger to Canadian health and security.
There have been vigorous doctor protests of the refugee health cuts all over the country, going back to last spring.
And they are not over yet. Kelly Block has managed to stir the ashes on this issue.
This coming Monday, medical students from the University of Ottawa are planning to stage a protest on the Parliament Hill to protest Block's "xenophobic letter."
They plan to don white coats and wear stethoscopes "to really make a statement."
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