06/22/2012 08:51 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Manitoba diocese takes federal government to court over refugee health changes

WINNIPEG - The Anglican Diocese and a refugee sponsorship group in Winnipeg are taking the federal government to court over its plan to strip new refugees of medical benefits such as prescription medicine and prosthetics.

“Churches don’t often take governments, or anyone else for that matter, to court,” Bishop Donald Phillips with the Diocese of Rupert’s Land told the Winnipeg Free Press.

What prompted the legal action was Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s decision to no longer provide supplemental health care to refugees during their first year in Canada, starting June 30.

Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, contends the decision amounts to breach of contract.

He said the diocese and the church-funded Hospitality House have a contractual relationship with the federal government, as do other refugee sponsorship agreement holders.

“One of the assumptions underlying the sponsorships is the Interim Federal Health plan would be in place,” said Denton.

The plan has been providing supplemental health benefits to former refugees during their first year in Canada when their needs can often be great, he said.

“Their health and their lives are literally on the line,” said Denton.

David Matas, a human rights lawyer and Nobel peace prize nominee, is representing the diocese in the court battle funded by donations from private citizens, Denton said.

“You don’t undertake a decision like this lightly but the issue is very, very important to people,” said Denton.

In the past 18 months, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Rupert’s Land has had more than 450 refugees arrive under its sponsorship.

The diocese is one of the largest sponsors of refugees in Canada. It has close to 5,000 refugees already sponsored and still awaiting processing overseas.

Hospitality House has sponsored thousands of refugees under the authority of sponsorship agreements that the Anglican diocese and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg have with Ottawa.

Hospitality House is joining the suit to protect its clients sponsored under the Catholic Archdiocese, Denton said.

It has around 6,000 outstanding sponsorships awaiting processing overseas, he said.

Federal officials are making the cuts not long after announcing plans to shift 1,000 refugees annually from the government-assisted refugee program to private sponsorships over the next couple of years.

The Canadian Council for Refugees says the cuts to the Interim Federal Health plan are going to be a serious deterrent to sponsors like churches that the government hopes will pick up the 1,000 cases it’s planning to drop.

For a number of years, Canada has selected many refugees with high medical needs and brought them here, the council said in a press release.

It said Canada bears a responsibility to make sure those medical needs are cared for once the refugees are here.

Denton said once the cuts take effect June 30, it won’t be easy for church members to tell new refugees who need medication: “Sorry, you’ll have to suffer."

Immigration spokeswoman Alexis Pavlich didn’t comment on the court action but emailed a statement supporting her department’s actions.

“Contrary to some claims, genuine refugees whose claims have been accepted and the vast majority of asylum claimants will see little change in their primary coverage," she said. "They will continue to have access to the doctor and hospital services that all Canadians receive through their provincial health care system, including treatment for chronic disease.

“What we will no longer do is ask hard-working Canadian taxpayers to foot the bill for health care services for asylum seekers, including failed asylum claimants who refuse to leave the country, that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves."

Denton said the Harper government is trying to pit Canadians against refugees it approved and selected.

“It’s beneath contempt," he said.

(Winnipeg Free Press)