One has to give credit to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for staying on message. In the face of this week's demonstrations across the country and mounting criticism from health care professionals, church leaders and refugee advocates, he doggedly defends his severe cuts to the interim federal health program for refugees here.
One has to wonder at his method for doing this. Despite the obvious -- that the cuts affect government-chosen and supported refugees and privately sponsored refugees as well as refugee claimants -- he reverts always to his standard answer that points only to refugee claimants and says they should not get more health benefits than Canadians. This dissembling statement that plays loosely with the truth and panders to prejudice.
Kenney refuses to discuss the withdrawal of benefits from his own government's sponsored refugees (about 7,000 a year and sometimes chosen by Canada precisely because of their medical needs), or the withdrawal of health benefits from privately sponsored refugees that have been usually sponsored by faith groups. He abandons his own "children" who have nowhere else to turn, and he saddles the churches of Canada with a new and unexpected liability.
There are 34,000 privately sponsored refugees waiting in overseas processing queues. Probably two-thirds of them will ultimately be selected by Canada's overseas officers and eventually get here. The majority of these were sponsored through agreements between various churches and the government under which Ottawa committed to provide the IFH coverage. The government will now apparently be in breach of these agreements, and it will be interesting to see what legal ramifications may follow in the weeks ahead.
Quick to condemn his critics, Kenney earlier this month castigated me personally on these pages for "inflammatory" remarks in a previous column and said that I had entirely missed the point. But it is the minister himself who refuses to address the point, always pointing instead at refugee claimants.
Perhaps the minister intends to relent and to exempt government and privately sponsored refugees from the IFH cuts. He has said nothing about this. Time will tell.
It is sad that Kenney has become the first immigration minister in memory to use refugee claimants as fodder in a them-and-us scenario around health benefits. Canada has been a proud signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and we have been accustomed to immigration ministers of the past who were defenders of its commitments, and of the world's refugee victims who land on our shores.
Hospitality House Refugee Ministry