harper refugee

           [Published as a Guest Opinion in the Guardian, September 8, 2015]

For decades, Canada has been known throughout the world as a humanitarian leader, especially when it comes to offering refugees a safe haven to begin a new life. Stephen Harper has all but destroyed that reputation. His Conservative government has made it increasingly difficult for refugees to come to Canada; or, if they happen to somehow get here, to enjoy a basic quality of life while their refugee claims are being adjudicated.

Many, many negative changes to refugee policy could be cited; however, two changes have been particularly heartless and deserve mention: both were successfully challenged in the Federal Court and have been struck down for violating basic human rights in contravention of the Canadian Constitution.

The first case saw the Harper government implement changes to the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) which designated dozens of countries as “non-refugee producing,” despite clear evidence of systemic persecution against minorities in many of those countries. Refugee claimants from countries on this so-called “safe country list” were being treated very differently from refugee claimants from other countries.

For example, if the Refugee Board rejected a refugee claim of a person from a country on this list, he or she was not allowed to appeal. On July 23, 2015, the Federal Court ruled that denying access to an appeal for refugee claimants from Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) contravenes Section 15 of the Charter (right to equality under the law and non-discrimination) and struck down the law. The federal Conservative government is appealing that decision.

The second case saw the Harper government implement significant changes to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) which denied basic health care to all refugees (excluding government-assisted refugees). These changes were also challenged in the Federal Court. In her ruling, Justice Anne Mactavish relied on Section 12 of the Charter where the ‘test’ for what constitutes cruel and unusual treatment or punishment is regarded as treatment “…so excessive as to outrage [our] standards of decency.”

She found that “…the 2012 changes to the IFHP are indeed ‘cruel and unusual’ in terms of their impact on affected individuals,” adding that, “While the negative impact of the 2012 changes to the IFHP is by no means felt exclusively by the children of those seeking the protection of Canada, the cruelty of the changes to the IFHP is especially evident insofar as they affect children.” Judge Mactavish noted the following scenario: “…a young child infected at birth with HIV would have no right to insurance coverage for any kind of medical treatment, effectively condemning the child to an early death.”

Despite the Federal Court ruling that these IFHP changes contravene the Constitution, and notwithstanding the fact that virtually every health professional group and every provincial and territorial government in Canada publicly condemned the federal government for its decision to deny basic health services to refugees, the Harper government is nonetheless also appealing this Federal Court decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The focus of Canada’s federal election campaign has recently shifted to the Syrian refugee crisis after images emerged of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. Prime Minister Harper is, not surprisingly, quite anxious to convince Canadians he is “pro-refugee.” Don’t believe it.

As Federal Court rulings have made abundantly clear, Harper’s refugee policy has been mean-spirited and cruel toward vulnerable people fleeing foreign tragedies and seeking our help. His callous approach is truly mind-boggling, given that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of a federal government that is compassionate and caring towards refugees. Let’s hope a newly-elected federal government will begin to undo the damage.