Harper’s cancellation of refugee health care “cruel and unusual” treatment: Federal Court

Today we celebrate Canada’s victory against a government-sponsored violation of basic human rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

by: Obert Madondo |  | Published July 4, 2014, by The Canadian Progressive

Protest poster during 2nd national day of action against Harper's draconian cuts to health care for refugees.  OBERT MADONDO / The Canadian Progressive

Protest poster during 2nd national day of action against Harper’s draconian cuts to health care for refugees. OBERT MADONDO / The Canadian Progressive

Today, we celebrate victory against both Stephen Harper’s elected dictatorship and the federal Conservatives’ veiled and legislated racism. We celebrate victory against a state-sponsored violation of basic human rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that the Conservatives’ 2012 cancellation of federal health care for refugees was “cruel and unusual” treatment of the “vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged” seeking Canada’s protection. It’s the kind of treatment that “shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.”

“With the 2012 changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, the executive branch of the Canadian government has intentionally set out to make the lives of these disadvantaged individuals even more difficult than they already are in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of this country to leave Canada more quickly, and to deter others from coming here,” Justice Anne Mactavish wrote in a 268-page ruling delivered Friday.

The court has given the Conservatives four months to reverse the changes.

Back in 2012, the Conservatives used their majority in the House of Commons to pass then minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney’s backward-looking Bill C-31 by a 159-132 vote in the House of Commons.  The deceptively named “Immigration and Refugee Protection Act”  introduced draconian cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program – the health-care program that benefits refugee seekers, with failed refugee claimants being denied hospital treatment altogether.

Then the Conservatives celebrated this naked assault.

Kenney, the Calgary South East MP posted a petition on his website asking Canadians to thank him for a job well done. The petition’s exact words:

We, the undersigned, thank Jason Kenney for his efforts to streamline benefits afforded to refugees claimants under the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) and bring them in line with the benefits received by tax-paying Canadians, including new Canadians.

Kelly Block, the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, “celebrated” Kenney’s cuts with a flyer mailed to members of her riding.

“New arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid by your tax dollars. They’ve had free prescriptions. Not anymore,” the flyer read.


The Federal Court’s ruling caps more than two years of the kind of struggle we should never have in Canada in the first place: the struggle for human rights. It validates the efforts of human rights activists who never gave up the good fight. Faced by a stubborn Conservative party buoyed by majorities in the House of Commons and Senate, these freedom fighters reminded us about what it means to be a caring and compassionate country.

Before and after the new law came into effect, the activists relentlessly explained, through various media, how the cancellation impacts both refugees and Canadian society.

In her ruling, Justice Mactavish, a former chairperson of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, explained the impact of the cancellation:

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

In 2013 and 2014, hundreds of Canadians, rights activists, doctors and other health care workers assembled on Parliament Hill and in cities across the country to protest the cuts.

Even Jewish-American political activist, Nobel laureate, writer, professor and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, appealed to Canada to return to sanity. His sobering words:

I feel morally compelled to remain on the side of other uprooted men and women everywhere. Today, as yesterday, a nation is judged by its attitude towards refugees.

In the fall of 2012, the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care revealed that more vulnerable refugees were now being denied access to health care as a result of the cuts. In December of the same year, the organization warned that the “Designated Countries of Origin” list, implemented under the new legislation, was creating more serious health risks for refugees.

In October, 2012, the Canadian Medical Association Journal warned that the cuts posed serious mental health risks for refugees.

In early 2013, Canadian refugee lawyers, advocacy groups, doctors and patients banded together to file a lawsuit against the cuts in the Federal Court of Canada. They claimed that the cuts violated the fundamental rights of refugees as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They asked the court declare the cuts unconstitutional and illegal.

“The cuts violate the fundamental human rights of refugees,” the group said in a statement. “They cause unwarranted sufferings to countless individuals, and unnecessary costs to the Canadian health care system.

The Federal Court agreed.

I wonder what Harper, Kenney and the Conservatives are feeling right now. They have just been reminded that, though we hardly confront racism perpetuated by political figures, as we should, the courts are still on Canada’s side.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on Twitter.com/Obiemad 

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.