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Rethinking DisABILITY: Health Discrimination in Canadian Immigration Law

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March 14, 2018

During my fellowship at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, I had the opportunity to conduct research on the subject of health discrimination in Canadian immigration law. The goal of my research was to challenge Section 38(c) of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; an Act which creates a systematic barrier for people with serious illnesses or disabilities from settling into Canada.

Section 38 targets a segment of society that is already extremely vulnerable. Historically, people with disabilities have been labelled as ‘burdens’ to society. The qualities that make people with disabilities seem ‘different’ are mistakenly perceived as setbacks. A stereotype has emerged that people with disabilities are incapable of being active contributors in society. For this reason, communities will often marginalize them, and by consequence, people with disabilities become more prone to social isolation and developing mental health issues.

In Canada, direct health discrimination endured in the catalogue of immigration acts spanning from pre-confederation until 1976. In the years following, alongside a major transformation of the entire immigration regime, the direct rejection of persons with mental and physical disabilities was replaced with a language of “excessive demand.” What this means is: if a migrant is seen to produce “excessive demand” on Canada’s public health system, they could be denied entry and be sent back to their country of origin.

Due to this shift from prejudicial legislative language that directly discriminates, to language that excludes based on rationalized public cost arguments, it is less common for society to be aware that discrimination even exists.

To conduct my research, I contacted stakeholders who are devoted to applying their expertise on this issue; whether that be in law, social work, academic research or personal experience. Their efforts varied from raising awareness, to conducting comparative legal research, to creating spaces where people feel safe to share their stories.

The organization whose efforts particularly stood out to me was AMEIPH. AMEIPH (L’association multiethnique pour l’integration des personnes handicapées) brings together people with disabilities from immigrant and ethnocultural communities regardless of age, limitation or financial status to help them fully integrate into their host society.

The philosophy of AMEIPH speaks volumes about equality: “The quality of life in society lies in the fact that each of its members is an equal part of it, regardless of their origin, abilities or limitations.”

They recognize that this inclusion is not yet a reality in the society we live in, and that people with disabilities from immigrant and ethnocultural communities need support to face externally-imposed barriers from their communities.

The organization has been around for 36 years and has over 130 members from 25 different countries.2 When taking on a new member, they focus on four main objectives: encouraging the member to become more autonomous, striving to improve the member’s quality of life, promoting the development of the member’s full potential and facilitating the member’s inclusion in society.

The organization provides various workshops: French language workshops to improve a member’s ability to communicate efficiently; “Women Without Borders” workshops to educate women on their rights and provide a safe space for them to express their opinion on their bodies, sexuality and disability; workshops on employment, workshops about access to housing and their tax benefits as individuals with disabilities. In addition, the organization connects members to different social and health services, offers them access to public transport and, when requested, acts as a cultural mediator for them in meetings.

The excessive demand regime perpetuates negative stereotypes of persons with disabilities by depicting them as a burden on society and ignoring the many contributions they give to Canadian society. I encourage readers to look further into the issue, raise awareness among their family and friends and support organizations such as AMEIPH: http://www.ameiph.com.

UpdateIn April 2018, the Government of Canada announced three adjustments to Section 38-1-C of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the section of the law that deals with “medical inadmissibility due to excessive demand.”

  1. The financial threshold for excluding applicants was increased to $20,000 a year.
  2. Speculated future cost of care on public social services no longer applies.
  3. Applicants with certain health conditions might now find it possible to permanently immigrate.

Although public cost is still part of the core framework concerning immigration policy for persons with disabilities, the Government’s adjustments represent a significant improvement.