refugee walk

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Memorial University medical students protest federal government cuts to refugee health care
Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram

Perhaps there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said by others on the matter of recent changes to refugee health care in Canada. What could my words add to the chorus of passionate voices that have expressed their deep dismay about the changes that went into effect on June 30 of this year? Since I started medical school more than 30 years ago, I have rarely witnessed another issue that has inspired the volume of advocacy among health care providers as the uprising that has unfolded in the last eight months over this matter. Physicians and other providers are trained to be effective health advocates. I am delighted to see how a large number of individual providers have taken this core competency seriously as they have advocated en masse against the cuts to refugee health care.

But it is not just individuals who have put themselves on the line over this. Look at the letter written last week documenting the concern of nine important national organizations of health care providers!

December 5, 2012

Hon. Jason Kenney, PC, MP

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Dear Minister Kenney:

We are writing on behalf of nine national organizations representing health care and social service providers from across Canada to request a meeting with you. This meeting would be… regarding the federal government’s changes to the Interim Federal Health Program.

…we are concerned that the program changes compromise access to health care for a vulnerable population, are not cost-effective and have a negative impact on the pan-Canadian health care system, increasing the burden on provinces and territories. Indeed, since the new program took effect, many of the concerns… have come to pass. Several provincial governments have also raised concerns.

We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these concerns, as well as ways in which health services to refugees could be delivered more efficiently and effectively.


Lillian Linton, President – Canadian Association of Optometrists

Fred Phelps, Executive Director – Canadian Association of Social Workers

Robert Sutherland, President – Canadian Dental Association

Robin Clouston, President – Canadian Federation of Medical Students

Anna Reid, President – Canadian Medical Association

Barb Mildon, President – Canadian Nurses Association

Jeff Poston, Executive Director – Canadian Pharmacists Association

Marie-Dominique Beaulieu, President – College of Family Physicians of Canada

Andrew Padmos, Chief Executive Officer – Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

Adding to the outcry, provincial leaders such as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews have condemned these cuts. Despite the hue and cry, there has been no change of heart from the federal government and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has not agreed to meet with the national health care leaders who have written to him.

Though so much has already been said, I must add to the chorus of discontent with this simple statement. Cuts to refugee health care are wrong from a public health perspective, an economic perspective and a moral perspective. From the public health viewpoint, I can tell you about a refugee who was denied a chest x-ray and later found to have pneumonia, which affected his health and potentially others around him. From an economic viewpoint, I can tell you about a woman who was not able to get proper prenatal care and her infant’s health may have been adversely affected. Her baby is a Canadian citizen. It would have been smarter to care for the mother appropriately and prevent avoidable costs in caring for the child.

But it is from the moral perspective that I am most disturbed. People seek refuge in Canada because they need a place to be safe. They have often fled horrendous circumstances in their country of origin. Surely we can pay a small price in order to provide basic care for those in who have had to flee their homeland. A civilized society must protect its most vulnerable citizens, whatever their origin. Canadians place a high priority on the values of compassion and social justice. We should choose leaders who share those values.

The fight to restore refugee health care makes me think of lessons learned in the campaign to abolish the slave trade 200 years ago in the United Kingdom. In that situation, Adam Hochschild noted that it “was not a case where the government provided leadership, but one where the sense of the nation pressed abolition upon its rulers.”

In the case of refugee health care, if our elected officials will not act in a way that protects the most vulnerable in society, the rest of us must continue to mobilize public opinion in support of what is right. This Saturday, in seven cities, Canadians will gather to demonstrate their objection to the cuts affecting refugee health care. If you are in Toronto tomorrow, it would be great to attend a National Day of Action for Refugee Health Candlelight Vigil at 4 pm in Nathan Phillips Square. The event is organized by Residents for Refugee Care to protest the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program and call on the government to reinstate equitable healthcare coverage for all refugees and refugee claimants.

As the season of Christmas approaches, my greatest wish is for peace on earth and goodwill to all. Surely the refugees in our midst should be the first people residing in this country to whom we extend a genuine offering of peace and goodwill.

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