Confronting Jason Kenney and the cuts to refugee health care: An interview with Bashir Mohamed

Bashir Mohamed is, to many people, "just" a university student. However, inside him brews the power and spirit of politics and social change. His previous actions involve starting and contributing to numerous charitable projects, including an initiative to send 1500 water filters to Haiti earlier this year. He hopes in the future to become a Member of Parliament with the hope of instituting true and effective change.

On Saturday, July 14, 17-year-old Bashir Mohamed interrupted a speech given by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to highlight the growing opposition to the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) imposed by the Conservative government as of June 30. The disruption -- which took place at a BBQ in Edmonton that was open to the public, but required pre-registration -- was inspired by similar actions taken by physicians and other healthcare providers (HCPs) across the country to force CIC to reverse the cuts to the IFHP.

The Conservative government has maintained its ideologically-driven policy that many HCPs are predicting will result in needless suffering and deaths. In the context of the mobilizations against the IFHP cuts, Bashir was the first person who is not a healthcare provider to disrupt a Conservative event.

While the mobilization of healthcare providers in opposition to the IFHP cuts has been unprecedented and inspiring, Bashir's disruption ushers in a new phase in the mobilization against the IFHP cuts by including others who are in opposition to the cuts, including migrants themselves. Bashir is a refugee of Somali origin who spent his early years in a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving to Canada in 1997 when he was three years old.

Unlike the treatment that most physicians and other healthcare providers have received when engaging in such disruptive actions, Bashir was forcefully removed by participants and organizers of the event, charged with assault, and handcuffed by police before eventually being released. The charge of assault was subsequently dropped.

While Bashir's disruption captured the attention and inspired many across the country, most of the interviews conducted by mainstream media focused unduly on how Bashir got into the event and why he didn't chose a more "polite" way of expressing his opposition to the IFHP cuts. Many commentaries, both in mainstream media and in social media, also resorted to ad hominem and racist attacks against Bashir, intentionally avoiding the crux of the issues he sought to highlight through his disruption.

Meanwhile, his call to debate publicly with Jason Kenney about this issue has remained unmet. What follows is an interview of Mohamed by Samir Shaheen-Hussain, who has been involved in radical grassroots social justice movements for over a decade and works as a pediatrician in two hospital-based acute-care departments. Shaheen-Hussain is based in Montreal, and is part of the Health Justice Collective and the No One Is Illegal campaign. In the interview, Bashir discusses his motivations for disrupting Kenney and shares his perspective about the broader movement against the IFHP cuts.

Samir Shaheen-Hussain: What are the implications of the IFHP cuts on people's lives?

Bashir Mohamed: The cuts to the IFHP will severely affect the standard of living for many people. All refugees (besides government sponsored) will be losing access to all health care unless they are a threat to public health and/or safety. This is already having adverse effects on the refugee population across the country as a substantial number of refugees have lost, and will be losing, coverage for medications and treatments.

SS-H: How did you get involved in organizing against the IFHP cuts?

BM: The Edmonton Journal published a one-paragraph article that simply stated “refugee health care will be cut.” I was shocked at this and dug a bit deeper. When I saw the insulting wording and horrible legislation on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, I decided that something needed to be done. So, I went to the June 18 rally in Edmonton. The rally was part of the national day of action that took place across the country, in response to a call by physicians and other healthcare providers based in Toronto to denounce the IFHP cuts. At the rally, I put myself on a mailing list and then attended a few meetings with others opposed to the IFHP cuts. Since then, new opportunities to act against the IFHP cuts keep coming our way.

SS-H: Why do you think it is important to take action against the IFHP cuts?

BM: Everyone is a newcomer to this country unless they are First Nations. It only stands to reason that everyone in Canada should take action against these cuts. When we start limiting something universal to one group of people, then we build a wall that becomes very difficult to tear down. Jason Kenney cannot be allowed to continue with his cuts to the IFHP and his numerous other immigration reforms.

For those who assume that we should just allow the government to do whatever they like, they should study the history of this country and see all the times that the Canadian government decided to do immoral and irrational acts. One example is that of the MS St Louis, a German ship transporting primarily Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution at the onset of World War II, which was not allowed to dock at the port in Halifax as a result of Canada’s infamous 'None is too many' policy; the ship was forced to return to Europe, and many of those refugees later ended up dying in concentration camps.

SS-H: The cuts are taking place in the context of policy changes to an immigration system that was already quite exclusionary even before the Conservatives came into power. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has made use of terms like "queue jumpers" and "bogus claimants" to justify the draconian changes he's made to immigration policy. Where do you think the cuts to the IFHP fit into this discourse and these policy changes?

BM: It has become clear to me that the main agenda of the Conservatives is to create a country like the United States. Over there, people fear newcomers and classify them as "illegal aliens." The ideal country for anyone with conservative politics is one where the borders are shut to human beings and the government separates people based on circumstances beyond their control. You cannot choose where you are born, so why should that stigmatize you?

With the epithets used by Jason Kenney to describe refugees, it is easy for anyone to adopt the government's stance. If you say that a small group of people is receiving “gold-plated health care,” then of course other people will be frustrated, especially if they don't receive the same services. However, the health care refugees receive is similar to that received by people on social assistance. Both are temporary programs that allow people to get on their feet. Meanwhile, if seniors, for example, don’t receive the same level of health care as certain refugee groups, then why doesn't the Conservative government improve services for seniors? Instead, they choose to make it a race to the bottom.

SS-H: What do you think is noteworthy about the mobilizations against the IFHP cuts thus far?

BM: The very people who implement health care are the ones who are most vocal against these cuts. When nearly every medical association raises a concern about the government, then it is time to take a look at the issue more carefully. It's not only health care providers, however. People from many different backgrounds are joining in against this: union members, students, activists, and other concerned people. This is truly something that the government cannot be allowed to get away with because they are in the wrong and can't substantiate any statements they make.

SS-H: You were physically removed from the event shortly after you began interrupting Jason Kenney. If you'd been allowed to speak, what were you intending on conveying?

BM: I had a memorized statement I was intending to give to the minister in relation to these cuts. I was also going to question him on a wide range of topics such as where on Earth he gets the power to do this and so on. I was a bit idealistic and figured I would finish saying what I had to say and also unveil a banner that reads "My Canada Cares for Refugee Health Care." However the four Conservative members chose to use force instead of engaging in a debate like other ministers have done when confronted. [You can read the full statement Bashir Mohamed intended to deliver to Jason Kenney here.]

SS-H: Why do you think the way you were treated was different than the way MDs and other HCPs have been treated during similar disruptions?

BM: It's important to note that all previous interruptions were in smaller press conferences. I ended up having mine in the middle of a room full of 400 hardcore Conservatives, including hard-lined conservatives like Danielle Smith (of the Wild Rose party). It was surely a hornets' nest. Plus the media wasn't in the room, so it was pretty much free reign for any type of response that they chose. My bogus charge of assault probably wouldn't have been dropped if it wasn't for the filming that we did. Perhaps what's most striking is that people in the room were visibly frightened that someone "like me" would do this sort of thing. Right after, somebody even tweeted "How did we know you didn't have a weapon?" I think that response sums it all up!

SS-H: Actions like yours are rarely do-able without collective organizing. What was the basis of support that allowed for the disruption of the BBQ event?

BM: It was the mailing list I mentioned before. We are just an ad hoc group of people who wanted to do our part. We have people from many organizations including unions, full-time activists, medical associations, students, and many more. Some of us got together when we received the email and planned out a course of action. What sane person would have walked into that room by themselves?

SS-H: Reactionary commentators have argued that you attended the event through "illegitimate" means. even though you actually pre-registered for the event. Many would counter, however, that a speaking event like the one you disrupted is completely legitimate to disrupt even if you "crashed" it (as many HCPs have done by "crashing" various Conservative MPs' events). Why do you think it is important to disrupt such events?

BM: If the government will not allow for open dialogue on the issue then we will find ways to make sure they know our message. The Conservatives have everything staged and do not want criticism or any opposition. Disruptions must be done so that they know that we will not simply stop when they respond by saying "no comment" or by saying nothing at all. The Minister commented on my challenge to the debate by saying that if "I have such a keen interest on public policy then perhaps I should run in an election and have that debate on the House of Commons’ floor." Even though I intend to do just that, I have a question: Is it feasible for the millions of Canadians to run for election every time they have a question for this government?

SS-H: On July 5, radical health care providers in Montreal launched a "We refuse to cooperate!" campaign , which calls on HCPs across the country to commit to providing health care regardless of coverage and encourages people to denounce the IFHP cuts and the recently-passed "Refugee Exclusion Act" (Bill C-31). A launch event also happened in Toronto on July 15, and in London, Ontario this past weekend. Launches in other cities are expected to follow. So far, well over a hundred people have participated across the country. What do you think of this initiative as a strategy, and what do you feel has to happen in order for the IFHP cuts to be rescinded?

BM: The overwhelming support against these cuts has been amazing. So, having a project like this running is something that the government cannot hide from. It shows the many Canadians who are against these cuts and their disappointed faces. For politicians, it also shows the potential for lost votes, so they should change their stance immediately. We need more people to get involved against these cuts. If more people living in Canada step up, then I am sure we can stop these horrible cuts. It just needs more pressure. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before apartheid came to an end. I am not saying it will take 27 years, but we can't let up. If we lose this battle, years from now, our children will question why more didn't stand up.

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