Protests planned across Canada to demand universal health-care access

On February 12, people in 15 cities across the country will be demonstrating to demand that health care be made accessible to everyone living in Canada, regardless of immigration status.

The national day of action, organized by a national coalition of migrant justice groups and spearheaded by OHIP for All, comes as a response to a United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decision condemning Canada for restricting access to health care on the basis of immigration status. 

The decision, issued in August 2018, gave the Canadian federal government 180 days to respond to the decision and "ensure the right to life extends to reasonably foreseeable threats and life-threatening situations that can result in loss of life."

The 180-day period for response ended February 9.

UN orders Canada to act

The UNHRC based its decision on a case filed by Nell Toussaint in 2014. Toussaint moved to Canada in 1999, and as a result of financial barriers and medical issues, delayed filing her application for permanent residency.

During that time, Toussaint was denied standard-of-care medical services -- like blood tests -- in hospitals because she lacked provincial health care coverage and could not afford the costs out of pocket.

She filed a claim with the UNHRC after being denied health care coverage under Canada's Interim Federal Health Program.

"Nell Toussaints' case is just a very appalling example of how things can go wrong," Souheil Benslimane, an organizer with the Ottawa Sanctuary Network and a co-organizer of Ottawa's upcoming OHIP for All action, said in a phone interview. "I think that Canada has to move swiftly and answer to the shortcomings of the systems that are in place right now." OHIP for All is a grassroots group of migrant justice activists, community groups, and healthcare professionals.

Benslimane himself is in the process of filing an application for permanent status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Benslimane's family members and child are Canadian citizens.

"Part of my activism is to bring these often stigmatized and taboo issues to the forefront of the discourse to break some stereotypes," he said.

Half a million excluded from OHIP

While the provincial health care systems provide what many believe to be free, universal coverage, "we actually have a system that denies people access to care on the basis of their immigration status," said Ritika Goel, a Toronto-based OHIP for All organizer.

Currently, OHIP, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, excludes approximately 500,000 people, including recent immigrants still within the three-month waiting period, workers under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program, international students and people who have not yet filed a refugee claim or are living with precarious immigration status.

A study from 2012 found that immigration status was the single most important factor impacting an individual's ability to seek out and access health care.

"Folks who are non-status often end up being forced to wait until their illness has progressed significantly before seeking care because of concerns of being detained and deported if they go to a hospital, or of having to pay exorbitant fees for public services," said Samir Shaheen-Hussain, pediatric emergency physician and member of the group organizing the Montreal action, Caring for Social Justice Collective.

Another report, delivered to the Toronto Board of Health and authored by the Medical Officer of Health, concluded that Ontario's health care system, OHIP, fails to provide access to essential health-care services for uninsured residents.

"We are digging a deeper hole when we are refusing to provide health care for people," said Benslimane.

"Groundswell" of support from medical community

The recent UN decision, and the federal government's subsequent failure to respond, prompted "a groundswell from the health care community," said Goel.

More than 1,500 individuals and organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Ontario Medical Association, the Ontario Nurses Association, and Amnesty International, have signed on to the OHIP for All coalition, which recently issued a letter calling on the federal government to respect a human right to health care.

"We don't want to live in a country that denies people care, on the basis of immigration status," Goel said.

The actions organized in 15 cities, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton, Montreal,and Halifax, marks the end of the 180-day period, "to say that we want to see action," Goel said.

While provinces and territories bear the primary responsibility of providing health care, Goel says the OHIP for All campaign wants to reframe health care as a federal election issue.

The Ontario NDP's recent leak of a draft government bill demonstrated Ontario Premier Doug Ford had considered consolidating six provincial health agencies into one "super agency" and slash local health integration networks, a move which the opposition declared would prompt "mass privatization" of health care.

In Quebec, Premier François Legault's party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, has weaponized debate on immigration, Shaheen-Hussain said.

"We have to organize to resist the heightened attacks from such governments that will continue to scapegoat various marginalized populations through the use of divide-and-conquer tactics," he said.

Organizers are calling on the federal government to explore federal mechanisms for ensuring adequate universal access to health care.

Goel says that with a federal election around the corner this fall, "[it] is a great time to be asking candidates that are running in your riding what their stance is, and to let them know that you think that health is a human right and you want to live in a country that truly provides universal health care."

Sophia Reuss is rabble's Assistant Editor. Tremé Manning-Cere is based in Toronto. 

Image: OHIP for All/Facebook

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