The Commons: Should the federal government pay for a refugee claimant’s cancer treatment?

The Scene. Ralph Goodale stood with right hand in pocket, a piece of paper in his left hand, to read the indictment against his former assistant.

“Mr. Speaker, the government’s decision to deny health care services to certain refugee claimants faces very stiff opposition. Doctors, nurses and every significant health care organization in Canada says the decision is wrong. Media editorials say the immigration minister has dropped the ball. Most especially, provincial governments are universally critical, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba. Saskatchewan’s premier describes federal refugee cuts as ‘unCanadian,’ ” the deputy Liberal leader reported to the House.

This much seemed inspired by the case of a man from Pakistan who arrived in Saskatchewan and was subsequently diagnosed with cancer. The man received chemotherapy, but, apparently as a result of the Harper government’s changes to the refugee health care program, the man’s anti-nausea medication was not covered. The Saskatchewan government has said it will cover the costs, but the Premier is unimpressed. This just a month after Conservative MP Kelly Block was criticized for celebrating the new policy.

“Before this gets worse and people die,” Mr. Goodale asked, “will the government correct itself and reinstate sensible health coverage for refugee claimants?”

Jason Kenney was perfectly passive aggressive in response.

“Mr. Speaker, we continue to provide health coverage to refugee claimants,” he assured. “We provide the same package of basic hospital and physician services that are typically available to Canadians. Not every province funds all of the same services precisely the same way. However, if provinces want to provide additional insurance for certain services to asylum claimants, they are more than free to do so.”

The issue seems rather more contentious than Mr. Kenney’s reading here might otherwise suggest.

“I would remind the member that, for example, we have no federal insurance at all for people who are here illegally, for temporary visitors, for newly arrived permanent residents, or for Canadian citizens who are re-establishing themselves,” the Immigration Minister went on. “They get no federal, or for that matter, provincial coverage. However, provinces are always free to provide insurance to people where they think it is appropriate.”

Mr. Goodale was unconvinced, his right hand emerging from his pocket to jab at the air in front of him for emphasis.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister says health service was cut for refugees because refugees were eligible for some services that other people did not get. Listen to Premier Wall on that topic,” Mr. Goodale suggested. “He said: ‘We can’t see a lot of evidence for that, frankly. And you know what, even if that were the case, who cares? This country is rich beyond measure compared to the countries where these refugees are fleeing from and so it’s our view that we should be there to help. That’s a basic Canadian value.’ ”

The Liberal now set conservative against conservative. “Why,” he asked, “does the federal government not share the same values as Premier Wall?”

Mr. Kenny once again attempted to explain the matter as something other than an outrage.

“Mr. Speaker, in fact there are many foreign nationals in Canada who have absolutely no public insurance, such as those who are here illegally, such as temporary residents, such as people who have recently arrived and even Canadian citizens when they have been living abroad come back and do not have insurance,” he reported. “Each province has constitutional responsibility for health care. If they want to make exceptions, if they want to provide expansive health insurance for foreign nationals who are here, out of status or temporarily, they are welcome to do so. We have no objection to that whatsoever.”

Mr. Goodale stood again with right hand in pocket, but in short order his hand emerged to express itself once more.

“Mr. Speaker, Conservative policy on refugee health care is incoherent mass confusion. The Saskatchewan government has been told by Ottawa that there are 11 different pigeon holes into which these most vulnerable refugees need to fit themselves before they will be treated by the Conservative government. If they die waiting, apparently that is okay with these Conservatives,” he ventured.

There was some grumbling from the government side. “Outrageous!” called Dean Del Mastro.

“However, it is not okay with Premier Wall,” Mr. Goodale continued. “He says this government’s treatment of refugees is unbelievable and unCanadian. Why will the Conservatives not fix the problem and provide chemotherapy to the cancer victim in Saskatoon?”

Mr. Kenny briefly repeated his assurance about the constitutional jurisdiction of provinces, but then moved to parry Mr. Goodale’s attacks.

“When he speaks about refugees, of course he is blurring a very important distinction here,” Mr. Kenny claimed. “Asylum claimants are not refugees unless they are deemed to be so by our fair and generous legal system. Sixty-four per cent of asylum claimants turn out not to be refugees and are ultimately removed from Canada. The largest source of those asylum claimants come from the European Union where, by the way, people have comprehensive health insurance and almost all of those claimants are rejected by our fair and generous legal system. There are limits to our capacity to—”

Alas, the minister’s time expired before he could finish that sentence. But he was given another opportunity when the NDP’s Jinny Sims rose to complain.

“In most of the cases to which the member refers we are talking about not refugees,” Mr. Kenney lamented. “I repeat not refugees, but people whose claims for asylum have been rejected, people who by definition are not refugees, people who are pending deportation, are avoiding their removal.”

Not the guy in Saskatoon!” Mr. Goodale called across the aisle.

“Is it the member’s position that everyone who is avoiding removal from Canada should get comprehensive and extended and supplemental health benefits?” Mr. Kenney asked of Ms. Sims. “If so, why does she not just say it?”

So, apparently, is it anti-nausea medication for all or anti-nausea medication for no one.

The Stats. Refugees, seven questions. Ethics, five questions. The budget, four questions. National defence, foreign investment, the F-35, veterans, trade, sports and the RCMP, two questions each. Food safety, temporary foreign workers, national unity, aboriginal affairs, taxation, employment insurance, the environment, Mark Carney and passports, one question each.

Jason Kenney, 11 responses. Peter MacKay, Pierre Poilievre and Ted Menzies, three responses each. Christian Paradis, Rona Ambrose, Peter Van Loan, Candice Bergen, Diane Finley, James Moore and Ed Fast, two responses each. Tim Uppal, Gerry Ritz, John Duncan, Peter Kent and John Baird, one response each.

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