A Scottish woman married to a Canadian wound up having their baby in a hotel room — across the street from a Vancouver hospital — after she couldn’t get provincial health-care coverage.
"Luckily it all went OK and I was able to cope with the pain," said Lynne Aitchison, who delivered baby Ziggy in the hotel bathtub, without medication or complications.
"We really just wanted to avoid the massive bills we were going to get, if we did go to hospital. However, we did want to be near one, should anything horrendous happen."
Lynne Aitchison, 35, was a firefighter in Scotland, who moved to Whistler, B.C., and fell in love with her future husband. A year ago, she married Brennan Armstrong, a liquor store clerk originally from Ontario.
Applied months before
Early in her pregnancy, she applied to immigration for permanent residency status. She also applied to the province for B.C. medical coverage because her travel health insurance had expired.
"We’re married. It’s legitimate. She’s my wife. I’m a Canadian citizen," said Armstrong, who expected she would be added to his provincial health-care plan.
However, the province told her she couldn’t have any medical coverage because she couldn't get a letter from the federal Immigration Department verifying her application.
"I wasn’t giving up very easily. I was constantly on the phone," said Aitchison. "I tried to use our circumstances [pregnancy] as ‘please, this is an exceptional circumstance.’"
She said Citizenship and Immigration refused to give her anything in writing because her application was sitting in a pile with thousands of others, unopened.
"All I wanted was a piece of paper saying ‘Yes, your case is being processed,’ so I could get some health care to have my child here," said Aitchison. "We were told, ‘No. Sorry, we can’t do anything for you.’"
Cases sit for months
Because of backlogs at the immigration processing centre, the department confirmed applications like Aitchison’s — from within Canada — aren’t even opened until almost a year after they’re received.
"I didn’t think this could ever happen in this country," said Armstrong. "Why isn’t there some faster track for someone obviously in an emergency [medical] situation?"
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The provincial government confirmed to CBC News it will not give medical coverage to anyone without written verification of their immigration status — no exceptions.
"We could have gone back to Scotland. Unfortunately, I can’t work in Scotland," said Armstrong. "We don’t have money for flights to Scotland. We are living hand to mouth here. Then, we get there — she’s pregnant. She can’t work. I can’t work."
The couple said they also couldn’t afford the estimated $10,000 bill for a hospital birth in B.C. So, after months of hitting bureaucratic brick walls, they said they came up with ‘Plan B.’
They hired a midwife from Vancouver. When Aitchison went into labour, a friend drove them into the city from Whistler to meet up with the midwife.
Their friend then rented a room at the Burrard Inn — carrying a suitcase full of towels for the birth — while the expectant couple waited in the back parking lot. They didn’t sign themselves in, for fear the hotel wouldn’t let them stay.
Sneaked into room
"I was leaning against a lamppost in the back alley by the motel, waiting for our friend to get the key," said Aitchison. "We went up the back elevator. My contractions were like three minutes apart at this point."
The hotel is right across the street from St. Paul’s Hospital, where the midwife has privileges. Aitchison endured several more hours of labour without medication before her baby boy was born healthy in the hotel room bathtub.
"Luckily it all worked out fine," said Aitchison. "The midwife wasn't even in the bathroom. Brennan caught him in the shower."
When asked, as a Canadian, what it was like to sneak his wife into a hotel to give birth, Armstrong replied he felt "totally betrayed."
"I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve worked full time since I was out of high school," he said. "We were completely robbed of what should be the best time of our life — and it’s been the most stressful thing that you can imagine."
Aitchison is one of 14,000 applicants caught in the same immigration application backlog, twice as many as a year earlier. Citizenship and Immigration said cases have been put on hold longer than expected, while the department upgraded.
"In 2010, CIC’s case-processing system was upgraded, causing a disruption to case processing at our Case Processing Centre in Vegreville, Alberta," read an email from the department.
"Unfortunately, this temporarily resulted in longer processing times, including longer times for file creation and first stage approval. Consequently, a number of cases received in 2010 were not entered into the system until 2011."
Minister predicts improvements
The minister responsible, Jason Kenney, insisted those upgrades will eventually make the system more efficient.
"We inherited an immigration system that technologically was stuck in the 1970s — a paper-based, slow-moving, bureaucratic system. We’ve invested a huge amount of resources in modernizing it, to speed up our processing," said Kenney.
"Our belief is that within two or three years we will be moving to what I call a ‘just in time’ immigration system, so that all of these applications will move more quickly."
Vancouver immigration consultant Holly Gracey said she's seeing another reason for delays. She said the new government crackdown on fake marriages is also slowing everything down for legitimate applicants.
"We’ve seen in the last year an increase, probably by about two to four months longer processing, due to more scrutinizing and more focus on marriages of convenience," said Gracey.
She also said, with the newer automated system, there’s often no human to whom they can appeal in cases like Aitchison’s.
"It used to be different. You used to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone. I think they’ve taken that personal element out of it," said Gracey.
"These are special circumstances that need to be considered. That poor woman should have been able to get some medical help."
Baby Ziggy is now five months old and doing well. The department confirmed Aitchison’s application has now passed the first stage of approval, which means she can finally get medical coverage and a work permit.
"I’ve worked all my life. I feel like I have skills to offer Canada," said Aitchison. "I have a degree. I have plenty of work experience — a variety of skills — and I’ve just basically been hiding in the house.
"We’ve started our life as a family in Canada in poverty because of a system that is failing. I’m not sure everyday Canadians know how bad this system is with the backlog and frankly, it’s just not good enough."