That politicians occasionally spin facts to recast the narrative around an unpopular decision is a truth as old as democracy itself. Last week’s federal electoral debate in Calgary was no exception.
It began when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau attacked the Conservative government’s failure to support refugees under Stephen Harper’s leadership: “They cross the oceans and they make it to Canada,” Trudeau said of asylum-seekers, who have dominated the news lately due to the worsening civil war in Syria, “and what does Mr. Harper do? He takes away their health care.”
Prime Minister Harper was indignant: “We have not taken away health care from immigrants and refugees. On the contrary, the only time we’ve removed it is where we had clearly bogus refugees who have been refused and turned down. We do not offer them a better health care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive. That is not something that new and existing and old-stock Canadians agree with.”
Harper’s reference to “old-stock Canadians” got lots of attention. But what’s far more shocking, say refugee experts, is his stony denial of the truth: that the Conservative government has diminished the medical insurance provided to most refugees in Canada—tens of thousands of them, in fact.
As Maclean’s recently reported, the Conservative government made cuts to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) program in 2012 that drastically reduced the medical insurance provided to refugees who are privately sponsored or who make a refugee claim upon arriving in Canada. The two groups represent 59,285 of the refugees who came to Canada between 2012 and 2014, show the latest data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The cuts also affect more than 7,000 “legacy claimants” who arrived before December 2012 and are awaiting their claim hearing, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees.
These groups of refugees no longer have health insurance for prescription medications, and “supplemental” coverage for services such as prosthetics, physiotherapy and counselling, as well as emergency dental and vision care. (Pregnant women and children have been granted temporary coverage for medications, until the federal Court of Appeal decides later this year whether the cuts should be reversed. Children also receive supplemental coverage.)
The only group not affected by the IFH cuts is government-assisted refugees, of which 18,646 were resettled in Canada between 2012 and 2014. They receive the same health insurance as the lowest-income Canadians.
“They’ve repeatedly tried to sell the cuts to the public by sayingthey are only taking away gold-plated health care from bogus refugees,” says Dr. Hasan Sheikh, an Ottawa physician and member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, of the Conservative government. “That is absolutely not true.”
Harper’s reference to “bogus claimants” during the debate is particularly noteworthy—and cringe-worthy, say refugee advocates. It’s a term that’s been used by Harper, as well as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, and his predecessor Jason Kenney, many times since 2012, as well as by other Conservative MPs during debates in the House of Commons.
Dr. Meb Rashid, a Toronto physician and co-founder of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, finds the term mystifying. “That implies these are people who have made a fraudulent claim,” he says, when, in reality, “this affects a number of people who have already been accepted, [and] a number of people who are awaiting their refugee hearing, and many of those will be found to be refugees.”
While a small number of refugee claims have historically been deemed “manifestly unfounded” by the Immigration and Refugee Board, “I’ve never heard of it being more than a few per cent,” says Lorne Waldman, a Toronto lawyer and former president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. (The IRB confirmed this to Maclean’s.) “The vast majority of people who come have a fear of persecution in their country of origin,” he says. “It’s just a question of whether their case falls within the narrow parameters of the United Nations definition” for determining refugee status.
That requires a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” as per the 1951 UN Convention. “An example of someone who is rejected is a person fleeing gang violence in El Salvador,” says Waldman. “Because he wasn’t accepted as a refugee doesn’t mean he’s bogus.” Similarly, victims of a natural disaster would not meet refugee status criteria.
The day after the federal debate, Harper was asked to explain his comments. He stuck to Conservative party rhetoric: “What the government did, and what the government has done, is we have removed special health care programs for those refugee claimants who have failed and are clearly bogus. And the reason we do that is because we want to make sure our refugee system serves genuine refugees and there is no reason why . . . we should give a special health care plan, better than received by ordinary Canadians, to people who are clearly not legitimate refugees and who have been judged as such.”
As it happens, a bogus claim was indeed made that day—but not by any refugee.