University of Ottawa medical school students protested outside Parliament Hill Monday afternoon in response to a letter from Conservative MP Kelly Block regarding spending cuts to refugee health care coverage.
Just over 60 students and faculty gathered on the steps leading up to Parliament on a breezy and sun-lit backdrop to demonstrate their disagreement with government proposals they say discourages refugees from seeking necessary medical care.
A number of commentators showed up on Monday, including NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims. She told the crowd that “we’re very proud of our universal healthcare” but that “some of the most vulnerable people coming to our shores, looking for shelter and looking for safety and security, are now being denied basic health care.”
But she maintained that “it’s far more than economics. It’s about who we are.”
A number of doctors and healthcare professionals opposed to the legislation also spoke at the rally, including Dr. Doug Gruner who works within refugee programs aimed at bringing recent claimants into the system.
Gruner said afterward that “this is the first time we’re seeing cuts in this sort of dramatic fashion to a vulnerable population. This is the first time ever in my experience.”
“I’ve been working as a physician for 19 years and I’ve never been on Parliament Hill to protest anything in my life. I’ve never had any need to.”
Gruner explained that prior to proposed budget cuts to refugee programs, “refugees would be able to access the primary care system. They’d be able to go in and see a family doctor or other primary care practitioners and get their illnesses dealt with and their vaccinations updated and all these other things that only cost pennies.”
“With these cuts, we’re going to make this problem that much worse.”
Manisha Hladio, a student at Ottawa, said “as students we have a unique opportunity of seeing the effects these changes will have on our healthcare system and I think we also have a unique opportunity to interact with refugees on a one to one basis.”
“So I think we can see who they are, see what we stand for as Canadians, and see how it all impacts the healthcare system.”
Protests in both Saskatoon and Ottawa were sparked by MP Block’s flyer that was mailed to her constituents earlier this month. It’s heading was “Ending Unfair Benefits for Refugee Claimants” and sparked a firestorm of controversy after its release.
Ottawa medical student Rebecca Warmington said that “that one thing that pushed us over the edge was Kelly Block’s statement that her flyer was educational. And as students, we can full-heartedly say that this is not what we do.”
She also said that “as future doctors, we are in solidarity with the future of Canada and the future of the Canadian healthcare system.”
According to some at the demonstration, the medical establishment’s displeasure with the legislation has actually been heard by the Harper’s government. Dr. Mahli Brindamour also spoke at the rally, and said afterwards that government cuts to refugee healthcare provisions were “actually a lot more severe in their original plan” and that the “government actually retracted a lot of it” after earlier protests in June.
Brindamour said that “initially for example the cuts were going to affect all categories of refugees, and now the government is saying some of the refugees will get the same coverage they used to get.”
More than anything however, students gathered at Parliament Hill on Monday seemed intent on raising awareness of refugee healthcare issues in Canada. Warmington said that “it is a more complicated discussion than what has been going on between the government and the general public.”
Her problem with government policies is that the process seems to be “bypassing the public like we’re not smart enough to figure this out. With issues like these, there are always nuances.”
Gruner said that the plan going forward is essentially “not to do anything for these refugees until their diseases become so acute and so urgent that they end up in our emergency department. And as an emergency physician...we’re already seeing wait times go up and up.”
“The cost to the system is unbelievable” Gruner said.