Chris Alexander

Federal Court reinstates health coverage for refugees

  • July 8, 2014

Sam is a refugee from Pakistan and a cancer survivor thanks to Church fundraisers and the generosity of doctors and hospitals working for free. He said he thanked God when the Federal Court ruled on July 4 that he is now entitled to health coverage from the federal government.

Refugees and others seeking Canada’s protection can no longer be left to face cancer, diabetes, pregnancy, essential surgery and chronic health conditions without any form of health coverage, the Federal Court ruled.

Cuts to the Interim Federal Health Insurance Program in 2012 violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, constitute “cruel and unusual treatment” and cannot be justified, said Justice Anne Mactavish in a 268-page ruling. Particularly as it affects children in refugee families, the federal government’s policy risks “the very lives of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency,” Mactavish ruled.

Mactavish gave Ottawa four months to revise its policy. The federal government plans to appeal the ruling. 

“We will vigorously defend the interests of Canadian taxpayers and the integrity of our fair and generous refugee determination system,” Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said after the ruling was handed down.

Sam had a different reaction to the Federal Court ruling.

“I just thanked God. I sat on the floor and thanked God last week. I went to Church and prayed and thanked God,” he said.

Sam’s case formed part of the argument the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers brought to the court. His real name has been published in the court’s ruling and in several newspapers. However, Sam is worried stories posted to the Internet will end up with attacks on his wife and five sons in Pakistan. The Register agreed not to publish his name.

In a refugee claim certified by the Immigration and Refugee Board just days before the court ruling on refugee health care, Sam relates how he was chased and shot by a cleric and two others who demanded he convert to Islam. At the time, in 1996, Sam was the lone Christian teacher at a junior high school in Islamabad. Now his 20-year-old son is facing similar pressure to convert if he wants to marry or go to university.

Now that Sam is a permanent resident, he hopes to bring his family to Canada.

After being shot in Islamabad, Sam moved his family to another district in Pakistan and tried to stay under the radar. By 2004 he was again under threat from the same people and managed to escape to the United States. Through six years the Americans were unable to conclude a refugee process and eventually rejected his application. Sam moved on to Saskatoon, where he was told refugee applications are dealt with expeditiously. 

Upon arriving in Saskatchewan Sam fell ill and discovered he had cancer. 

To pay for his first round of chemotherapy Sam sold everything, leaving him destitute. Then the churches stepped in. Diocese of Saskatoon director of migration services Ellen Erickson however discovered there was just 46 cents in the emergency fund set up years ago to help refugees.

Holy Spirit parish in Saskatoon stepped in with $10,000 to replenish the fund. Royal University Hospital paid for the second round of chemotherapy treatments. Eventually the provincial government agreed to pay for Sam’s anti-nausea medication on a one-off basis. Unlike Ontario and Quebec, Saskatchewan has not decided to replace Interim Federal Health insurance with provincial insurance.

Sam has been cancer-free since June and gets tested every four months.

“It’s done. Now I’m good, enjoying my good health,” he said. 

Mactavish found fault with the government’s rhetoric about refugee claimants. 

“It puts their lives at risk and perpetuates the stereotypical view that they are cheats and queue-jumpers, that their refugee claims are ‘bogus,’ and that they have come to Canada to abuse the generosity of Canadians. It serves to perpetuate the historical disadvantage suffered by members of an admittedly vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged group,” she wrote.

Mactavish also ruled that government lawyers had failed to prove the government was saving any money by cutting health insurance to refugee applicants. The federal lawyers said the program costs $91 million.

Since 2012 Sam has seen two sides of Canada in the government and in Church volunteers who gathered to help him through his ordeal. Now he wants to become a citizen.

“When I was in the cancer situation, when Jesus Christ gave me my health back, I talked to my wife and said ‘It’s not only Canada, it’s heaven. Around me are not just people. They are angels. They help me.’ So I hope this is a good place for me. God bless Canada,” he said.

“We remain committed to putting the interests of Canadians and genuine refugees first. Failed claimants and those from safe countries like the U.S. or Europe should not be entitled to better health care than Canadians receive,” Alexander told reporters after the ruling.

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