Provinces not jumping to cut refugee social assistance access
Originally published in Embassy News.
Late last year, the federal government passed Bill C-43 allowing provinces and territories to restrict access to social assistance. It is now up to each province and territory to decide whether an individual must reside there for a certain period of time before they can access social assistance, and they may do so without losing federal funding for it.
As it became clear that the bill was not likely to be defeated, Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) reached out to the premiers of each province and territory to inquire whether or not they intend to use the provisions that would allow them to restrict access to social assistance. In a letter dated November 24th, CPJ asked each premier to publicly state if they did not intend to do so as a demonstration to the federal government that this was not an initiative they desired.
The premiers’ responses have been divided into three categories below. To the question, “Will you expose refugees to considerable risk and impose this new residency requirement?” several premiers answered “No.” Those responses which were ambiguous have been classified as “Unknown,” and those provinces or territories from which CPJ did not receive a response have been labelled “No response.”
Ministers responding on behalf of Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta stated that they have no plans to change their existing eligibility requirements for social assistance in response to Bill C-43. Indeed, Jackson Lafferty, Minister of Education, Culture and Employment for the Northwest Territories, laudably stated that, “the Government of the Northwest Territories prides itself on supporting its most vulnerable residents through its comprehensive and fair income assistance program,” while Jim Prentice, the premier of Alberta, asserted that “refugee claimants in the process of having their claim determined by the federal government have a right to remain in the country, and when appropriate, should continue to be eligible for social assistance.”
Ontario and Quebec have both stated publicly that they do not have any intention of changing their policies. Additionally, Ontario’s Opposition Leader Jim Wilson wrote to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander on behalf of CPJ, requesting that he review and provide a response to our letter.
British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Nunavut indicated in their responses that CPJ’s concerns would be included in government discussions on the matter, but did not explicitly state that they would not make changes to their current social assistance policies.
No answers were received on behalf of the governments of Manitoba, New Brunswick, or the Yukon, and follow up calls seeking comment were not returned.
It appears, therefore, that restricting access to social assistance, which would disproportionately impact vulnerable refugees, is not high on provincial or territorial governments’ radar.
So is there anything to really worry about?
Yes, there is. While there may not appear to be much interest in changing current policies at the moment, this may not always be the case. Multiple factors – a change in government, pressure from the public, budget deficits, or additional incentives from the federal government – could lead to a new policy route.
The fact that the federal government has even allowed this option is consistent with other policy measures undertaken that reduce refugee rights and limit their access to care. Most recently, on January 27th, they argued before a Federal Court judge that last year’s July 4th ruling, ordering them to reinstate the Interim Federal Health Program, did not specify that the program must be reinstated precisely as it was before the program was changed in 2012. These changes stripped many categories of refugees of the ability to access healthcare. At the same time, the government continues to waste millions of dollars pursuing an appeal to the Court’s decision.
Given the roadblocks refugee advocates face at the federal level, our best hope lies with the leaders of provincial and territorial governments; that they will continue to resist any actions that would create further hardship for refugees, and will demonstrate the exemplary attitude that our federal government is so sorely lacking.
Photo: Riley Yandt/flickr