In March 2011, Harper’s Conservatives became the first government in the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of Parliament. That historic moment came about after Harper’s then minority government refused to disclose sufficient information about the cost of several big-ticket items such as the law-and-order agenda, corporate tax cuts and the plan to buy stealth combat jets.
The Conservatives now seem to be angling for a second contempt order, this time from the courts. In 2012, Cabinet overhauled the Interim Federal Health Program. With the changes, the government ended the more than 50 year tradition of funding comprehensive health insurance coverage for refugee claimants and others who have come to Canada seeking protection.
The effect of these changes was to deny funding for life-saving medications such as insulin and cardiac drugs to impoverished refugee claimants from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It was to deny funding for basic pre-natal, obstetrical and paediatric care to women and children seeking the protection of Canada from “Designated Countries of Origin” such as Mexico and Hungary. It was to deny funding for any medical care whatsoever to individuals seeking refuge in Canada who are only entitled to a Pre-removal Risk Assessment.
Refugee organizations brought a constitutional challenge to these changes claiming, among other things, that they amounted to “cruel and unusual treatment.” The Federal Court agreed, in a decision released in July 2014.
The Court concluded that the government intentionally set out to make the lives of admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals even more difficult in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of Canada to leave more quickly and to deter others from coming here.
The Court was particularly, but not exclusively, concerned with the effect of the changes on children who have been brought to Canada by their parents. Like the young child with a fever and cough who was unable to get a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Or the asthmatic 8 year old who began coughing and wheezing more severely because his mother could no longer afford asthma medications. Or a young child infected at birth with HIV, who without medical treatment would be effectively condemned to an early death.
The Court concluded that the 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program “potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”
The Court gave the government four months to reinstate the coverage in place before 2012. The government, not surprisingly, has appealed the decision. However, in the meantime, its request for more time to abide by the Court’s order was denied. The deadline for compliance was November 4, 2014.
November 4, 2014 has come and gone and while the government says it has complied with the Court’s decision, experts say this is blatantly false. Professor Jennifer Bond notes that while certain refugee claimants have had their coverage restored, others have not. Many claimants still will not be covered for drugs or supplemental health benefits.
“The government is still being punitive, they’re being selective and the court told them to reinstate all benefits,” said Peter Showler, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Showler said it is likely their lawyers will file a contempt motion, asking the court to order full compliance.
We heard in December 2012 from whistleblower Edgar Smith that the legislative branch of the Department of Justice was approving legislation even if it had a “combined likelihood of five per cent or less” of being upheld by the courts. But now the Conservatives have taken one step beyond passing likely unconstitutional legislation. They are now breaching an explicit court order.
If there was any doubt in our minds before, there should be none now. Harper’s Conservatives believe themselves to be above the law.