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SASKATOON—Hundreds of Saskatoonians gathered at Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar MP Kelly Block's office in the city on Saturday, protesting her latest newsletter about cuts to health care for refugee claimants. People have called the item anti-immigrant, xenophobic and racist.
Block's newsletter, entitled, "Ending Unfair Benefits for Refugee Claimants," states, "New arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid by your tax dollars. They've had free prescriptions. Not Anymore."
Some see the message as an early attack on medicare and as an attempt to divide Canadians. Others see it as an attack on Canada's long history of generosity and caring for those coming to the country as refugees.
Dr Ryan Meili, Family Doctor at the WestSide Community Clinic, spoke of caring for refugees and recognizing their special needs as well as requirements for general health care. Meili called Block's publication a "divisive and inflammatory action" through which she was attempting to divide Canadians. He called on the federal Conservative Party to "stop abdicating its responsibilities for health care."
On June 30, 2012, the Conservative government implemented changes to the Interim Federal Health Program. The new directives mean that refugee claimants waiting on appeals, or from a list that the federal government deems safe, no longer have access to important medical services, ranging from insulin for diabetes to treatment after heart attacks.
While the government scaled back some of its proposed cuts on the eve of implementing the changes, advocates for the program have said that the services which continue to be covered account for only two per cent of the former budget.
Speaking at Saturday's rally, Meili also said the western provinces, other than Saskatchewan, have agreed to cover the costs of treating refugee claimants. He said Saskatchewan people should encourage their provincial government to take on the care of the refugee claimants as well.
Meili lives in Saskatoon's Riversdale neighbourhood, which is part of Block's constituency. He is running for the leadership of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party.
Meili's wife, Dr. Mahili Brindamour-Meili, also spoke. She is a pediatric resident studying at the University of Saskatchewan and working in the Saskatoon Health Region. She is also Co-Chair of the Immigrant and Refugee Health Committee at the University of Saskatchewan.
The committee organized a protest last week which drew doctors, nurses, other health care providers and students. It was called the "59 cent protest" because the money that it cost to provide care for refugee claimants is about 59 cents per taxpayer per year. She said refugee claimants, like all people, "need acceptance and compassion," particularly because of the violence many have experienced.
Brindamour-Meili told the story of a caller who attacked her for supporting the needs of refugees. She added that in the end, the caller told Brindamour-Meili she should go back to where she came from.
Mark Bigland-Pritchard, a member of a Mennonite congregation, spoke on behalf of his daughter, a university student in Winnipeg. Reading from her letter, Bigland-Pritchard called the statements contained in Block’s newsletter "unhelpful, dishonest and biased."
A psychologist with the Saskatoon Community Clinic, Dr. Nayyar Javed, described Block as "taking up where Jim Pankew left off." Pankew is a former Reform Party Member of Parliament. He is best remembered as having made a number of very racist remarks in conversation and writings. Javed went on to say that Block was "not elected to spread hatred."
Other speakers included representatives of the legal community and labour.
The event, which attracted approximately 500 people, took place under the watchful eye of Saskatoon Police. The crowd was so large that on several occassions it spilled onto the street in front of Block's office.
Rob is a retired career journalist based in Saskatoon. He has worked in both electronic and print news. This article was originally published on the Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.