Hundreds of refugees, health care workers and their supporters rallied on Parliament Hill to condemn the Harper government’s drastic cuts to refugee health care, which will take effect June 30.
The demonstration was one of 13 across the country in a national day of action to protect the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides temporary health insurance for refugees.
“The interim federal health program is not a charity – it’s an investment,” said former refugee and family doctor Parisa Rezaiefar.
“Refugees don’t come to Canada because we have a generous interim federal health program. They come to Canada because the alternatives are displacement, torture, rape and death,” says Rezaiefar.
“Along the way we lose our families, our friends, our homes, our health and our dignity…I’m here to ask you not to abandon our most vulnerable. In this incredible country of ours, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Mark Tyndall, head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital, passionately defended refugees having full access to health care.
“The government has used this issue to divide Canadians, pitting those who are dissatisfied with their own health care coverage against refugees. Canadians are smarter than this. This is an attack on our entire health care system,” says Tyndall.
“The doctors who are standing up for refugee health are the very same doctors who are standing up for the rights of all Canadians to the very best health care available.”
Community health centre nurse Mado Mushimiyimana described the health care she received when she arrived in Canada with serious vision problems. Today, she relies on glasses. The proposed cuts will end vision care for refugees.
“I can’t imagine today, someone who’s left their country, who’s left their family, and arrived in Canada, who does not have the right to access health care. That’s not acceptable,” said Mushimiyimana.
Family doctor Doug Gruner works at the Bruyere Family Medicine Centre with Rezaiefar. He outlined what the cuts will mean to his work. After July 1, his refugee patients won’t have coverage for potentially life-saving medications.
“Canada has figured out a long, long time ago that it makes more sense to pay the pennies for medication to prevent conditions from getting worse, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the humane thing to do. And it will save money in the long run. This plan is not going to work. It is going to put lives of refugees at risk, and it will cost taxpayers more money.”
The cuts will hurt refugee children – which has lifelong consequences, pediatrician Toby Audecent told the crowd.
“There’s a proven link between primary health care in early years and adult health and productivity. There is no second chance.
“Providing health care to refugees in Canada is compassionate, it’s equitable and it’s also the best decision,” says Audecent.
Ottawa midwife Betty Ann Davis connected the dots with Canadian government policies that create more displaced people and refugees, including the government’s support for mining operations in the global South.
CUPE members took part in rallies across the country. In Winnipeg, CUPE 2348 member Shereen Denetto helped organize a rally because the cuts are “injustice, plain and simple.”
Denetto has been coordinating health promotion programs for and with refugee communities for the past eight years.
“I’ve met people who have faced some of the most difficult and traumatic experiences one can possibly imagine. The people we provide service for are very thankful for the services we provide and are always working hard to fit into Canadian society - despite the many hurdles they face of culture shock, language barriers, poverty and discrimination,” says Denetto.
She says she’s seeing the impact of the cuts already. “One woman asked us, ‘How will I be able to afford my child’s medicine?’ With the cuts, essential medicines for things like asthma, epilepsy, and diabetes will no longer be covered. Coverage for glasses, dental visits, wheelchairs and crutches will no longer be available.”
“Basically, refugee families will have to choose between keeping a roof over their heads, or paying for food - or paying for medications or health needs. They will not feel there is a choice. Adults will get sick, children too - and it’s a terrible thing to say -but I fear that someone may die,” says Denetto.