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Disabled groups fight immigration law they say is 'demeaning'

Last Updated Nov 19, 2017 at 1:40 pm PST

TORONTO – A national advocacy group is pushing for the government to repeal immigration criteria that it calls discriminatory toward people with disabilities.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities is calling for the repeal of a provision that bars immigrants with disabilities from settling in Canada on grounds that they could place too much demand on the country’s medical system. The group contends the practice is discriminatory and based on outdated, stereotypical ideas around disability.

The council wants the government to drop the requirement from the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make sure disabled people are included in crafting a new, more inclusive procedure.

The council will be among several groups speaking this week before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

The committee is studying the country’s current criteria for the medical admissibility of prospective newcomers and will be holding sessions this week to hear views on the issue.

Council First Vice-Chair John Rae says disability rights advocates don’t often get a seat at the table at the inception of a new policy, and the result often is that changes must be made later to address their uniquely complex needs.

He hopes hearing a disabled perspective on medical inadmissibility criteria will help the committee shape new rules that are more in line with Canadian values.

“In addition to being discriminatory in effect and impact, it is very demeaning because it assumes that persons with disabilities are inherently a burden on society,” Rae said of the current system. “We reject that idea.”

The council plans to focus its feedback on a provision of the Act that explicitly singles out disabled applicants and places limits on their prospects of Canadian residency.

Section 38-1C states that a person can’t be admitted to Canada if they have a health condition that “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services.”

Rae said that provision is based on an antiquated way of thinking of disability, which assumes that the condition a person has is directly responsible for any issues they may encounter.

He said modern approaches to disability focus on a social model, which states difficulties disabled people contend with are more directly related to societal barriers caused by everything from inaccessible physical environments to non-inclusive legislation.

He said Canada’s current laws also run counter to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabilities, which the government has signed on to.

Article 18 affirms disabled people’s right to “liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others,” principles Rae said the current system openly violates.

Felipe Montoya, whose family ran afoul of the present rules in 2016, said change is long overdue.

The York University professor originally from Costa Rica had to temporarily leave Canada when the government found that his 14-year-old son was not eligible for permanent residency because he has Down syndrome and might place an extra burden on the health system.

Lawyers have previously said that in such cases, a finding of inadmissibility is often applied to the entire family.

The ruling was ultimately overturned after a ministerial intervention, but Montoya said the current Act is unjust and risks shortchanging the country on both ethical and economic grounds.

“It reduces the whole family to something one member is considered to lack,” he said. “It doesn’t at any point consider what the disabled person contributes, nor does it consider what the whole family contributes in taxes, in productivity, what they bring to the country.”

Montoya is also planning to appear before the committee, which is studying medical inadmissibility criteria at the behest of provincial and territorial immigration ministers.

The committee held its first set of hearings on the issue on Oct. 24 and has three more sessions scheduled.

The federal government said it was reviewing the law and said every applicant has a chance to “demonstrate their ability and willingness to mitigate any cost impact on social services in Canada.”

“No specific health condition results in an automatic rejection of an applicant,” said an emailed response from the government.

At the previous meeting of the standing committee, Liberal MP Marwan Tabbara said the policy was in place to “maintain a balance between welcoming new members into society and protecting our publicly funded health care and social services.”

Rae said he hopes Section 38-1C of the Act will ultimately be scrapped and called on the committee to ensure disabled groups have a say in any new law created to take its place.

“We believe we need to be more involved in the design, development and implementation of any program that affects us,” he said. “Not at the end of the road when the decisions are almost finalized, but at the beginning when there’s still time to positively impact upon what is being developed.”

—Follow @mich_mcq on Twitter.