Advocates prepare to battle feds over cuts to refugee benefits

Measures that would give provinces the ability to cut off access were buried in the Conservatives' latest omnibus budget bill

OTTAWA – A new battle is brewing between refugee advocates and the federal government – this time over whether those awaiting a decision on their refugee status ought to have access to social assistance.

Measures that would give provinces the ability to cut off access were buried in the Conservatives’ latest omnibus budget bill, catching observers off guard in much the same way that sudden changes to refugee health care coverage did two years ago.

Those opposed to the social assistance provisions are appearing at hearings on the bill in Ottawa this week and also plan to express their outrage today in front of the finance minister’s office in Toronto.

Over 150 groups have signed an open letter calling on Finance Minister Joe Oliver to remove the provisions from Bill C-43.

“Access to social assistance is vital to sustain and rebuild lives,” the letter reads.

“Without that source of support, many will be unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves and their families, putting further pressure on already overburdened charities and shelters.”

The provisions in Bill C-43 amend the agreement which governs transfer payments between Ottawa and the provinces.

Currently, if provinces place any residency restrictions on who is eligible to receive social assistance, they could lose some of the money they receive from the federal government to cover those services.

But the budget bill seeks to change that, creating categories of people to whom residency requirements cannot apply, opening the door to the imposition of restrictions on anyone not on the list.

It’s a blatant attempt to go after refugee claimants, advocates say.

“It’s the same line and the same discourse being used here as has been used with the health care cuts so it’s the continuation of that,” said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“Just practically speaking, if you look at who has access to social assistance and who could be affected by a residency requirement, refugee claimants are the main group that would be affected.”

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the budget bill changes are about devolving power to the provinces, though in line with previous revisions to refugee policy.

The changes “will give the power to the provinces and territories to establish minimum periods of residence to qualify for social assistance, if they wish to do so,” Kevin Menard said in an email.

Officials from Citizenship and Immigration told a Senate committee hearing earlier this month that the changes were the product of conversations with Ontario officials, but the province denies making the request.

“In fact, the Ministry of Community and Social Services has concerns about the potential human rights implications of imposing a waiting period for a specific group,” said a spokesperson for Minister Helena Jaczek.

“We believe that a waiting period could impact people with legitimate refugee claims who are truly in need.”

The human rights implications of another recent change to refugee policy landed the Conservatives in court.

A coalition of refugee advocates and physicians successfully argued that the overhaul of 50 years of policy governing health care for refugee claimants violated those people’s charter rights.

They won, though the government is appealing.

It’s likely the new changes will also see the government in court, said Michele Biss, the legal education and outreach co-ordinator for Canada Without Poverty.

The Conservatives say they have no intention to force provinces into making the change, but that might not matter, Biss said.

“Regardless of what happens and what decisions the provinces make down the line, that doesn’t change the fact that the federal government has a responsibility to have these important standards in place to protect the rights of people living in poverty.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.