When a young protestor was thrown out of a Conservative party barbecue over the weekend for interrupting a speech by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, I expected complaints. Charges of police brutality, or censorship, or closed-mindedness. Instead, the protestor in question, 17-year-old Bashir Mohamed, has been quite cheerful about the whole affair.
Bashir Mohamed, 17, poses for a photo outside of Edmonton City Hall in Churchill Square on July 15, 2012. (IAN KUCERAK/QMI Agency)
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
“The police were very nice,” he said not long after being released from police custody with no charges. “They just wanted to figure out what was going on. I have nothing against the police.”
Mohamed did fall while being pulled out of the event, but he says he was not hurt. (He was still able to shout out “Jason Kenney is killing compassion with his health care cuts!” in the process.) In fact, the only thing the teenager, who says he was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, is now requesting for is a 10-minunte, one-on-one debate with Kenney about the government’s cuts to health care for refugees.
Mohammed gets bonus points for not inventing lame police brutality claims, or heading straight to a human rights commission to whine about being silenced by the man. He has quite a lot of nerve, however, to suggest that rudely shouting at Kenney during a talk qualifies him above all other critics for face time with the minister.
Besides, it seems unlikely Mohammed could add much to the debate. Because arguments against the cuts — that they will harm the most vulnerable people in society, that they will cost the government more in health-care costs in the long run — have been made quite vociferously since the changes to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) were first announced. Mohammed could call Kenney cruel and inhumane. But he wouldn’t be the first to do so. There’s already a “We’re Ashamed of Jason Kenney” petition available online for the signing.
Anyway, we already know what Jason Kenney would say in such a 10-minute battle, too. All refugees are still entitled to the same level of health care as Canadian citizens, which is to say all necessary medical treatment is covered. The cuts only apply to supplementary coverage for things like dental and vision care and medication — things the rest of us pay for out of our own pockets — and even then, the cuts only apply to some asylum claimants. Bogus claimants will be deterred. The federal government will save $100-million over five years. And given the government’s other changes to the refugee claim process, provincial governments should save even more money, since false claimants will spend less time in the country.
And so on and so forth. The interesting thing is that the debate seems to focus on how big a deal it is if refugee claimants can’t access dental care or medication. But why do we assume that ending government coverage of these things inevitably dooms refugees to go without them? Isn’t that an underestimation of both the claimants’ resilience and our society’s level of caring?
First the resilience: Legitimate refugee seekers come from terrible situations and arrive with few resources or contacts in a new country. Landing a job in Canada is no simple or easy matter. But despite the difficulties, refugees can — and do — work here while waiting for the adjudication of their claims. (The government waives the normalapplication fees for work permits and social insurance numbers.) The grit and determination claimants used to get themselves half-way around the world to flee persecution tend to come in handy when seeking employment; so there are crazier things than suggesting that some claimants will be able to pay independently, or through employment-related insurance, for their eye exams and dental fillings and insulin shots.
There is help available for claimants searching for work, in any case, from charitable organizations — everything from the Red Cross to Catholic outreach ministries to provincial not-for-profits — which brings us to Canada’s level of caring.
Despite what Bashir Mohamed may think, Jason Kenney could not kill compassion in Canada even if he wanted to because compassion is not confined to government. It flourishes in the private sphere, where dental schools run free or low-cost clinics for low-income kids and adults; and registered charities, such as The Diabetes Hope Foundation, offer financial assistance for medications and medical equipment to those who can’t afford them. Less formally, there are the kind-hearted optometrists and dentists who will simply give a truly struggling patient a break because it’s the right thing to do.
Far from banishing refugee claimants to inevitable misery, Jason Kenney is reminding us of what living in a compassionate country really means.