Omnibus budget bill restricts refugee access to social assistance

The bill would lift the prohibition on minimum residency, ending the national standard for supporting refugee claimants in need

OTTAWA – Buried in the Harper government’s latest massive, omnibus budget bill is legislation that could restrict the ability of refugee claimants to access social assistance.

The move follows the government’s decision to limit refugee claimants’ access to universal, public health care.

That measure was struck down by Federal Court Judge Anne Mactavish, who said it constitutes “cruel and unusual” treatment, puts lives at risk and “outrages Canadian standards of decency.”

The government is currently appealing that ruling.

On social assistance, the government has essentially adopted as its own a private member’s bill introduced last month by Conservative backbencher Corneliu Chisu.

It is proposing to amend the legislation governing federal transfer payments to provinces for social programs. That legislation currently forbids provinces from imposing a minimum residency requirement before a refugee claimant can become eligible for social assistance.

The budget implementation bill would lift the prohibition on minimum residency, which was intended to ensure a national standard for supporting refugee claimants in need.

The 458-page bill includes a host of measures unrelated to the budget, including broadening the scope of the national DNA bank, tightening rules for the temporary foreign workers program and creation of the long-promised Arctic research station.

It was tabled Thursday — while the attention of virtually the entire nation was focused on the wild shootout that had occurred a day earlier in Parliament’s Centre Block.

A spokesman for Finance Minister Joe Oliver said it had always been the government’s intention to table the bill on Thursday, in hopes that it will be passed by the time Parliament takes its Christmas break.

Although he did not take issue with the timing, New Democrat MP Craig Scott said the government uses omnibus bills precisely to avoid scrutiny of controversial provisions like the refugee social assistance cuts.

Scott called the social assistance and health care cuts “a one-two punch,” aimed at discouraging vulnerable, desperate people from finding their way to Canada and claiming refugee status, even though many claimants turn out to be genuine refugees.

“It suggests to me that they are pursuing the Fortress Canada approach to refugees to the nth degree,” said Scott, adding that the NDP will press the government to split the refugee provision from the budget bill.

“We want this pulled, simply because it’s frankly so offensive that they can’t justify the substance, let alone how they’re doing it.”

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defended the notion of restricting refugees’ access to social assistance in essentially the same language the government used to justify limiting their access to health care.

“Canada has the most fair and generous immigration system in the world,” said Kevin Menard. “However, Canadians have no tolerance for those who take unfair advantage of our generosity.”

Menard added that allowing provinces to impose minimum residency requirements would build on the savings already racked up as a result of reforms to the refugee asylum system, which he pegged at $1.6 billion over five years.

He stressed, however, that it’s up to each province to decide whether to impose minimum periods of residence to qualify for social assistance.

Deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale called the government’s latest move on refugees the product of a “nasty, vindictive and irresponsible” ideology.

He too blasted the government’s repeat use of omnibus bills as a “subversion” of Parliament, which was invented centuries ago precisely to give commoners control over their government’s purse strings.

“It makes a farce out of parliamentary control over the finances of the country,” Goodale said in an interview.

The latest bill includes legislation to implement previously announced measures to tighten the Temporary Foreign Workers program and to reduce Employment Insurance premiums for small business owners.

Goodale said both measures have already proved ineffective and should be scrutinized separately, not crammed into an omnibus bill.


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