Martin Patriquin

Court loss on refugee health cuts may still be Conservative win

It’s tough to see the Conservative scapegoating of refugees as anything but an electoral gambit, writes Martin Patriquin

For the several years, the word “bogus” has been a favourite at the offices of the Citizenship and Immigration ministry.

Previous immigration minister Jason Kenney used “bogus” no less than eight times in a 10-minute speech in 2012, and liberally peppered his office’s press releases with the term throughout the latter two years of his tenure. Canadian press quoted and paraphrased Kenney saying the word more than 30 times during his nearly five years as minister, always in reference to Kenney’s bogeyman of choice: Canada’s refugee and asylum system.

Current Minister Chris Alexander has continued Kenney’s “bogus” legacy, using it six times in a recent eight-minute speech about Canada’s refugee system. In fact, Kenney and Alexander have rarely spoken about our refugee and asylum system without mentioning the “bogus” claimants around the world who would take advantage of it. The system, as Kenney said in 2010, is “famously ineffective”—ripe for abuse by criminal gangs, roving caravan types and other assorted layabouts.

Alexander didn’t use the term in the wake of the Federal Court’s judicial drubbing of his government’s attempts to fix one aspect of this apparently broken system; he instead offered up a bromide to the put-upon Canadian taxpayer before tersely declaring his intent to appeal the decision.

And what a decision. In the words of Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish, the Conservatives’ attempts to wean the world’s welfare bums off the bountiful Canadian teat amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment of those in the refugee system. The measures in the Conservative government’s Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which severely restrict heath care coverage for refugee claimants, “shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”

Certainly, it is all of that, and kudos to Judge Mactavish for noting as much with such rhetorical flourish. Beyond the courts, though the bigger and more cynical issue is the reason why the Conservatives would deny access to medical care to refugees in the first place. It isn’t to weed out those “bogus” claimants, or out of a sense of duty to the Canadian taxpayer. When considered as but one item on the laundry list of judicial defeats suffered by the Conservatives since 2011, it’s tough to see the Conservative scapegoating of refugees as anything but an electoral gambit.

As this list helpfully points out, the Conservative government has suffered no less than nine judicial defeats since its re-election three years ago. The vast majority were on identity issues closely aligned to the social conservative wing of the party. The government challenged and lost on supervised injection sites, prostitution laws, early parole abolition, judicial sentencing discretion for time served, mandatory minimums, Senate reform, and the growing of medical marijuana.

It’s a stretch to say the Conservatives built laws specifically to fail in court, but their failure doesn’t hurt the brand nearly as much as some might think. Rather, the Conservative operative would say that the party has instead garnered crucial talking points for the coming election. By thwarting Conservative laws, the various courts—whose judges are as unelected as your local senator, remember—have essentially shown themselves to be the liberal (and Liberal) friend to every pot-smoking, drug-injecting, prostitute-loving, refugee-coddling softie out there. Each judicial decision against the Conservatives reaffirms a collective belief, and reinforces a handy stereotype.

In the most recent Federal Court case regarding refugees, the government isn’t quite clear on what constitutes a “bogus” claim. I asked, and the ministry sent a list of rejected, abandoned and withdrawn claims so far in 2014. The inference, I guess, is that every denied or dropped claim is inherently bogus. The number of refugee claimants doesn’t suggest a surge in abuse: as this chart shows, there were roughly 34,000 accepted refugee claimants in 2011, down from 2003’s 25-year high of 42,400.

In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives scored a double whammy. Having spent years making the case that Canada’s refugee system is replete with “bogus” claims, they can now claim the courts are in favour of immigrant hoards leeching off the Canadian dream. Even in loss they win.

Looking for more?

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