A spoken word artist's opposition to refugee health cuts: An interview with Ikenna Onyegbula

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On June 30, 2012, yet another draconian measure was implemented by the Conservative government: Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney went ahead with his latest (at the time) salvo against migrants by drastically cutting refugee claimants’ access to healthcare services.

Some coverage -- for medications, basic dental and vision care, rehabilitation services -- is no longer available to any refugee claimant in Canada. Meanwhile, the IFHP cuts also introduced the concept of varying degrees of (limited) healthcare services being offered to refugee claimants based on what category they are from: for example, refugee claimants from a "Designated Country of Origin" (ie., designated by the Immigration Minister based on specious criteria) can effectively only access healthcare if they have a communicable infectious disease or if they are homicidal!

Health care providers denounced these cuts soon after they were announced in April 2012. Their opposition to the cuts has included disruptions of Conservative MPs events and office occupations. Others have called for health care providers across the country to simply not cooperate with the IFHP cuts. The mobilization of health care providers in opposition to the IFHP cuts has potentially catalyzed others who are in opposition to the cuts to take action.

Last year, Bashir Mohamed -- a university student who himself arrived to Canada in 1997 as a refugee when he was a young child -- disrupted an event where Jason Kenney was speaking. More recently, prominent Canadian artists have come out to denounce the IFHP cuts as well.

Ikenna Onyegbula is a writer and spoken word performance poet currently residing in Ottawa. Self-described as a social justice advocate, the harsh reality facing refugees in Canada compelled Ikenna, partly given his own personal story of migration. In learning about the IFHP cuts and that one of the justifications provided for the cuts by the Conservative government was to save money, Ikenna's "disappointment turned to anger at the wanton disregard for human life, all at the hands of capital." His indignation served as the inspiration for a powerful spoken word piece he recently created, entitled "Refugee Health Care Cuts in Canada -- We Are Much Better Than This."

What follows is an interview with Ikenna conducted 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. Samir is based in Montreal, and is a member of the Health Justice Collective. He was also part of the Montreal Organizing Committee for the June 17th National Day of Action Against the IFHP Cuts.

In the interview, Ikenna discusses his motivations for speaking out against the IFHP cuts as an artist, and shares his perspectives about some of the the more systemic issues that informed the cuts.

Samir Shaheen-Hussain (SS-H): What was the process that led to you creating your spoken word piece in opposition to the IFHP cuts?

 Ikenna Onyegbula (IO): My piece was created in collaboration with Dawghaus Studios in Ottawa, who filmed the piece. I was simply approached to write and create a piece on a social justice issue of my choice pertaining to Canada, based on the fact that I had a sort of back catalog of poems tackling other major social justice issues -- like hunger, violence against women and so on.

SS-H: How did you get word of the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) cuts?

IO: The IFHP cuts first came to my attention while researching for this particular video project. The project involved writing and speaking about a present and prevalent issue in Canada which could be viewed through a human rights lens. I had a lot of different issues I was interested in, but I finally settled on refugee treatment in Canada, generally. Even under that topic, there were other more focused issues, but I finally felt drawn and moved by the treatment of refugees by Canada as it pertained to their health rights, and then more specifically on the recent health cuts.

SS-H: Why did you feel drawn to this particular issue if you were interested in so many issues? Why refugees and why their health?

IO: The reason I felt drawn to other issues is simply because I am a social justice advocate and everything from old age security to the Conservative Government's assault on reason interests me.

With this particular issue about refugees, however, I found that I could more easily resonate with it, tap into my empathy and stretch it out a lot more; not only as a once landed immigrant who is now a citizen, but also as someone whose family faced some of the same struggles with wanting to feel included and be considered a giving and productive part of this country's economy, society and well-being.  Many of the best friends I made while at university were international students, with whom I often even lived and spent most of my time (including students from my own country of origin, Nigeria). I witnessed first-hand their struggles with student visa renewals to be able to remain in the country and finish their education.

Then, after university, I witnessed their difficulties with work permits, and then permanent residency applications. They sought only to be able to forge strong futures for themselves while contributing to society. These were all good, hard-working people, who sometimes got rejected despite all their sincere and persistent efforts -- from paying pretty much double what citizens pay for tuition, to working long hours after university to try to build a meaningful life for themselves.

I could only really imagine how much more difficult, and sometimes demeaning, the struggle for inclusion for refugees might have actually looked like, and it pained me.

Meanwhile, what compounded this is the fact that Canadian citizens get free basic health coverage and it is something, as a nation, we have always been proud of. Rarely do you see the flip side of this: that refugees, who have already spent so much of their lives fighting off one form of injustice or the other, are actually being denied the basic health coverage given to the Canadians at the very bottom rung of the economic ladder. If we cannot even save our fewest resources for all the people who truly need it, then to me it simply sends a message that we are a xenophobic and hateful nation, and I cannot accept that.

SS-H: What was your initial reaction when you learnt of the IFHP cuts?

IO: My initial reaction was further disappointment in Harper's Conservative government, particularly given that the country really plays up to its multiculturalism tag. Given its colonial history, however, and the unjust treatments leveled against the First Nations population (amongst others) for centuries, I wasn't all that surprised at this moral injustice being perpetrated against refugees, seemingly for simply being refugees. As I delved deeper into the issue and came across some of the reasons and laws surrounding the health cuts -- such as the government's claim that they will be able to save 100 million dollars over five years -- my disappointment turned to anger at the wanton disregard for human life, all at the hands of capital.

SS-H: Up until now, the more visible opposition to the IFHP cuts has largely come from healthcare providers and students. As an artist, what was your motivation for doing your spoken word piece against the IFHP cuts?

IO: My main motivation for doing the piece was the responsibility I feel as an artist to lend my voice to the life struggle. It is my belief that we are all, as humans, in one way or the other, tied to the mental, emotional and spiritual evolution of each other. Therefore, I do not feel like I can ever rest easy ignoring the fact that everyday, all over this entire world, humans suffer mercilessly at the hands of other humans, constantly being mistreated and having their basic human rights rescinded by self-serving corporations, organizations, individuals, groups and/or governments.

Regarding the IFHP cuts, it saddened me that not only were the health cuts a new reality, but the process of filing successful refugee claims had also become more difficult with expedited deadlines [through the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (Bill C-31), also dubbed the "Refugee Exclusion Act"] and the government giving themselves the discretion of choosing which countries around the world were actually safe [designated safe countries], in order to accept less refugee applications. To me, it was sending a strong, rather xenophobic message of "we do not want you," and I could not remain silent about this.

SS-H: Prominent Canadian artists recently came out against the IFHP cutsHow do you feel artists contribute in denouncing injustice and as part of campaigns for social justice?

IO: Artists are fortunate in a way because most artists, and certainly "prominent" ones, have, over time, gained a support base for their work. There are people who already value their talents, ideas and opinions, and this gives them a foundation on which to build further awareness about important social issues.

In addition to this, the stylistic presentation that art employs can help to provide different perspectives that allow people, who might not otherwise do so, to willingly engage and participate in social justice messages and campaigns.

SS-H: You have also performed pieces taking a critical perspective on poverty, and its root causes. What are the links, if any, between the fight against poverty and the fight for migrant justice?

IO: The main point I was trying to make in my poverty poem was that given the vast resources and wealth locked in the control of a small percentage of individuals and corporations in the wealthiest countries in the world, world poverty is essentially an engineered concept, because not enough of the wealth is equitably spread around to reach the most vital areas in need. Therefore, yes, there are some links between both the fight against poverty and the struggle for migrant justice, as they both pretty much highlight the idea that gross poverty and a lack of resources still exist in the richest nations in the world. I simply do not buy it.

SS-H: What do you feel are the root causes of the IFHP cuts? How do you feel the IFHP cuts relate to broader immigration policy?

IO: I definitely feel that the culture of capitalism and money -- especially the fact that the Conservative government has calculated that it will be able to save hundreds of millions dollars over the years, through the cuts -- are at the root of the problem. I believe that trying to keep up with the pressures of maintaining a strong economy results in furthering the unequal spread of resources, while the gap between those who "have" and those who "have not" increases. When cuts are to be made, it is the lower and lowest classes of society that suffer most. It is a type of class warfare, where the lowest classes are seen as the most expendable, regardless of how many human lives are destroyed.

Furthermore, Canada really has a poor history when it comes to its treatment of migrants. As mentioned earlier, the health cuts send a pretty strong message saying "we don't want you" to potential migrants coming here. This is made even worse by the laws that accompanied these cuts, such as expedited claim deadlines and the ability to strip refugees of their statuses and deport them to countries that, in actuality, may not be safe for these people to return to.

SS-H: You invoked the notion that "This is not Canada" in your piece. However, as you just mentioned, Canadian history is replete with examples of discrimination and outright hatred towards people migrating here (from the ignoble era of the Chinese Head Tax around the late 19th century and early 20th century to the Third Safe Country legislation of the last Liberal government, and many policies and laws in between). What were you trying to convey when making that point?

IO: To be perfectly honest, I would perhaps now strike that phrase ("This was never Canada") from the poem completely. To clarify, though, what I actually said was: "This is Canada, but this was never Canada. We are much better than this." I simply meant that this is the Canada of reality, but when I think or dream of what Canada could be, I can never allow myself to see this hateful, immoral and unjust version of it, in terms of its treatment of migrants and First Nations peoples. Perhaps it is a highly idealistic and utopian view of Canada, really, given its history as a colonial nation.

I think I wrote it because I found myself completely lost in the emotion of the poem. Thinking about it now, I would strike it off completely, and leave it simply as "This is Canada. But we are much better than this."


Samir Shaheen-Hussain has been involved in radical grassroots social justice movements for over a decade. He is also a pediatrician who was involved in organizing the June 17th National Day of Action Against the IFHP Cuts.

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