While the Harper government increasingly uses words like “barbarism” and “terrorism” to justify provoke fear and manufacture scapegoats, it refuses to repeal its own barbaric health cuts that terrorize refugees. Last month Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care took the government to court to force it to repeal cuts that a Federal Court found as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In June 2012 the Harper government imposed drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program that provides basic healthcare for refugee claimants. Then in December of that year the government refused to provide services to refugees from all but 27 countries that then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney deemed “safe.” Claiming the government shouldn’t pay for “bogus” refugee claimants, these changes imposed discrimination on refugee health. Since then limited services have only been available to limited claimants, depending on where they came from and if they had what the government considered a “health emergency” (which didn’t include such basic care as treatment for heart attacks, chemotherapy for cancer, insulin for diabetes, prenatal care, or psychiatric medication for those with a history of suicide attempts).
The racist cuts triggered two years of broad opposition—including occupations, demonstrations, and a court challenge. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care took the government to court on the grounds that denying such services to refugees was against the Canadian charter.
Legal victory but cuts continue
They achieved victory in court in July 2014, when Judge Mactavish found these acts were indeed unconstitutional. The cuts themselves represented “cruel and unusual punishment” (violating section 12), because they “potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.” And discrimination against refugees of certain countries violates section 15 that calls for “equal treatment before and under the law, and equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.”
Many saw this as a victory and also an end to the cruel practices of the Canadian government. After the November 2014 deadline, some of these discriminatory restrictions were removed but many of them still existed and many of the refugee claimants are now trying to survive without health care. The federal government till now has failed to comply with the ruling of the federal court. Many refugee claimants are still without health care services. Even after the courts had deemed that this would put many lives including those of children at risk, the government has failed to act. So this January, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care went back to the courts to get the government to comply with the July 2014 ruling.
Last month it was revealed that the Harper government, in their attempts to keep these discriminatory and unconstitutional cuts in their budget, has wasted over $1.4 million in legal fees. These are just legal fees; the associated costs have not been included in this figure. The same money could have been put towards providing many refugees with necessary health care. As NDP MP Andrew Cash argued, “Instead of paying lawyers to keep health care away from refugees, the Conservatives should end this offensive charade, abide by the federal court’s ruling and fully restore the program.”
The federal government’s claim that their reason to cut these services was to save Canadian taxpayer's tax dollars is not persuasive. It is hard to find that persuasive when the total saving, according to the government, would be $20 million a year or 0.0000724 per cent of the total expenditure of that fiscal year. While Harper claims to be “saving” $100 over five years of cuts that jeopardize the very lives of refugees, he has spent the same amount on government ads praising his so-called “Economic Action Plan.”
The much bigger figure is $36 billion, the amount of money Harper plans on cutting from Medicare. The cuts to refugee health are cruel and unconstitutional, and also serve to scapegoat refugees and provide a cover for Harper’s massive cuts to public healthcare. By discriminating against disadvantaged groups and taking away their human right to health care, these cuts worsen their already precarious conditions in Canada and are the sharp end of the broader austerity agenda. We need to continue demanding the government reverse all cuts to public healthcare—both the discriminatory cuts against refugees that deny them the most basic services, and the broader dismantling of Medicare.