Following a Global News investigation that revealed flaws with the way Canada evaluates immigration applications for persons with disabilities, community leaders, politicians and advocacy groups say it’s time the government changes its outdated and discriminatory immigration policies.
“These are heartbreaking stories,” said Jenny Kwan, MP for Vancouver East and the NDP’s immigration critic. “We have a Charter of Rights and [it] actually says that we must not discriminate on the basis of disability. And yet we have an immigration policy that is premised on exactly that.”
During a three-month-long investigation into Canada’s immigration system, Global News discovered officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada deny applications for permanent residency made by persons with disabilities based on cost estimates for which the government’s numbers don’t always add up.
But Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, says no one is ever automatically denied permanent residency based solely upon the fact they have a disability. He acknowledges issues surrounding medical inadmissibility and excessive demand, and says the government is currently conducting a review of these measures.
“We are consulting with provinces because, as you know, health care is a provincial jurisdiction,” Hussen said. “We are doing what we can to find out from provinces how to move forward on this.”
Hussen said there was no timeline on when this process might be completed, or when families may see change, but said the ministry is considering the options carefully and looking very closely at the issue.
What is ‘excessive demand?’
Known as “excessive demand,” Immigration Canada can deny permanent residency to applicants whose disability or medical conditions could reasonably be expected to cost Canadian health and social services more than $6,655 a year, a figure the government says was the average health and social service spending per Canadian in 2016.
According to the government, the reason for this policy is to ensure newcomers to the country do not place “excessive demand” or burden upon publicly-funded health and social service programs.
But as Global News has learned, this dollar amount does not account for nearly $40 billion in social service spending the Conference Board of Canada says we spend each year – meaning the limit for “excessive demand” should be higher. According to immigration lawyers who spoke with Global News, this means families may have been denied permanent residency based on faulty information.
“They’re just doing guess work,” Kwan said, referring to the fact the government could not provide accurate statistics for average social service spending. “And by doing that, they’re playing with peoples’ lives. They’re separating families, causing families an unbelievable amount of pain. And so in my view, this policy cannot stand. It cannot stand because the government does not have the data to back it up.”
Global News requested an interview with Hussen to respond to Kwan’s assertions, but a spokesperson for the minister said he was unavailable.
“[Immigration Canada] is in discussion with provinces and territories with a view to review of the current medical admissibility and excessive demand provisions,” said Bernie Derible, a representative for the minister. “This is an important point as all provinces and territories have a stake in this matter.”
Meanwhile, asked to explain the discrepancy between their figures and those provided by the Conference Board of Canada, a spokesperson for the government said, “These are not the figures [Immigration Canada] uses in assessments.”
Instead, as the Global News investigation discovered, Immigration Canada says it bases its numbers on data provided by LifeStageCare, an online subscription service owned by an American company based out of Tampa, Fla., that tracks long-term care spending and “publically available” material.
However, despite repeated efforts to obtain the exact source of these materials, Immigration Canada could not provide any specific details.
Disability group says policy must change
James Hicks, national co-ordinator for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, says he’s surprised the government cannot point to an exact source of the information it uses when setting the limit for excessive demand and medical inadmissibility.
“The government needs to identify specifically what their costs are going to be,” Hicks said. “It makes me think that it’s not real. How can it be? Regardless of any work that was done. They may have had somebody who’s not a researcher try and come up with that number and they got it wrong. But if that’s the case, then they need to get a statistician to develop the proper number.”
Regardless of cost, Hicks says focusing on the monetary value of people ignores their true worth and contributes to the myth that persons with disabilities are somehow less valuable than their able-bodied peers.
“It’s a blanket sort of identification that people with disabilities are going to be a burden,” Hicks said. “[But] when you’re talking about children, any child, we don’t know what children are going to be when they grow up. And if they have the opportunity to be in a healthy family and a healthy country, they could do great things. And we’re denying them that.”
Sheila Bennett is the associate dean of education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. In 2016, her work was used by Immigration Canada to help develop cost estimates used to deny the application of York University professor Felipe Montoya. This was because Montoya’s 13-year-old son, Nicolas, had Down syndrome and would require special education services once in Canada.
But according to Bennett, her research has always focused on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the classroom. She says she cannot understand how or why her work would have been used to deny the application of a potential immigrant with a disability – or “exceptionality” as she calls it.
“Inclusion is rights-based, not charity-based,” said Bennett. “[It’s] about everybody having the right to be at the table.”
“Nothing in my work would suggest that crunching a number or assigning a dollar figure to any individual’s worth, or what it may or may not cost in terms of bringing them into our community,” Bennett said. “If you read it at all, it really is about how children with exceptionalities are just part of the school system.”
Bennett says the government now has an opportunity to change the rules surrounding medical inadmissibility and excessive demand – changes she says are long overdue. She says that if the government wants to be truly inclusive, then it must stop drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and acknowledge the worth of all individuals.
“I would suggest that the government listen to its own messaging,” Bennett said. “It’s a pretty simple childhood kind of lesson that we learn: You shouldn’t say it if you don’t mean it. So if you want to say Canada is an inclusive country that respects and honours and welcomes diversity, you can literally stop there.”
–With files from Andrew Russell.
© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.