by Rob Brown
Hundreds of Saskatoonians gathered at Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar MP Kelly Block’s office in the city today, protesting her latest newsletter about cuts to health care for refugee claimants. People have called the item anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist. Some see it as an early attack on medicare, and as an attempt to divide Canadians. Most, if not all, see it as an attack on Canada’s long history of generosity and caring for those coming to the country as refugees.
Block’s newsletter, entitled, “Ending Unfair Benefits for Refugee Claimants,” says, “New arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid by your tax dollars. They’ve had free prescriptions. Not Anymore.”
Dr Ryan Meili, Family Doctor at the WestSide Community Clinic, spoke of caring for refugees, and recognizing their special needs as well as requirements for general health care. Meili called Block’s publication a “divisive and inflammatory action” through which she was attempting to divide Canadians. He called on the federal Conservative Party to “stop abdicating its responsibilities for health care.”
Meili also said the western provinces, other than Saskatchewan, have agreed to cover the costs of treating refugee claimants. He said Saskatchewan people should encourage their provincial government to take on the care of the refugee claimants as well.
Meili lives in Saskatoon’s Riversdale neighbourhood, which is part of Block’s constituency. He is running for the leadership of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party.
Meili’s wife, Dr. Mahili Brindamour-Meili also spoke. She is a pediatric resident studying at the University of Saskatchewan, and working in the Saskatoon Health Region. She is also Co-Chair of the Immigrant and Refugee Health Committee at the University of Saskatchewan. The Committee organized a protest last week which drew doctors, nurses, other health care providers and students. It was called the “59 cent protest” because the money that it cost to provide care for refugee claimants is about 59 cents per taxpayer per year.” She said refugee claimants, like all people, “need acceptance and compassion,” particularly because of the violence many have experienced.
Brindamour-Meili told the story of a caller who attacked her who attacked her for supporting the needs of refugees. She added that in the end, the caller told Brindamour-Meili she should go back to where she came from.
Mark Bigland-Pritchard, a member of a Mennonite congregation, spoke on behalf of his daughter, a university student in Winnipeg. Reading from her letter, Bigland-Pritchard called the statements Block’s letter “unhelpful and dishonest” and “biased.”
A psychologist with the Saskatoon Community Clinic, Dr. Nayyar Javed, described Block as “taking up where Jim Pankew left off.” (Pankew is a former Reformed Party Member of Parliament. He is best remembered as someone who had made a number of very racist remarks in conversation and writings.) Javed went on to say that Block was “not elected to spread hatred.”
Other speakers included representatives of the legal community and labour.
The event, which attracted about 500 people, took place under the watchful eye of Saskatoon Police. The crowd was so large it spilled occasionally on to the street in front of Block’s office.