Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander publicly scolded the Ontario government today for defying the federal government's decision to reduce the level of health care available to refugee claimants.
Ontario introduced a new program, effective Jan. 1, that will provide refugee claimants with access to primary care and urgent hospital services as well as medication coverage regardless of their refugee status, following cuts to a federal program that administers temporary health-care benefits to refugee claimants.
"I've expressed our government's disappointment with the Ontario government's recent decision to reinstate health-care benefits to all asylum seekers and even rejected refugee claimants," Alexander said.
"Simply arriving on our shores and claiming hardships isn't good enough. This isn't a self-selection bonanza, or a social program buffet."
Alexander was at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday where he held a press conference to tout the government's success with its overhaul of Canada's asylum system.
'This decision is irresponsible as it makes Canada, and Ontario in particular, a magnet for bogus asylum seekers.' —Chris Alexander, minister of citizenship and immigration
The federal government's reforms for the asylum system introduced in December 2012 include, among other things, a list of 37 countries that "do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection."
Claimants from this Designated Country of Origin (DCO) list, which includes the U.S. and most countries from the European Union, now have their refugee claims heard faster.
The goal of the policy, the minister said, is to ensure that people who are in real need of asylum get the protection they are seeking fast, while those with unfounded claims are sent home more quickly.
Alexander said the number of asylum claims from countries that are generally considered safe but used to produce a high number of unfounded claims has dropped 87 per cent.
"I want to make this point very clear, because it seems some people still don't understand the great benefit to genuine refugees that flow from our reforms. The beneficiaries of these reforms are yes, Canadian taxpayers, but mostly and overwhelmingly genuine refugees."
Ontario to bill Ottawa
The immigration minister said Ontario was compromising the integrity of the system by putting "bogus" asylum seekers and "failed" refugee claimants ahead of Canadians who are seeking health-care services and refugees who are in need of real protection.
"This decision is irresponsible as it makes Canada, and Ontario in particular, a magnet for bogus asylum seekers."
Alexander said he raised the issue directly with Ontario's Health Minister Deb Matthews when he met with her last month.
Matthews told CBC's As It Happens in December that cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, which administers temporary health-care benefits to refugee claimants, brought "chaos" to health-care providers in communities where there are a large number of refugees.
"Doctors were forced to ask questions like 'what country did you come from, when did you arrive, what stage are you are in your claims process.' It was very, very difficult for providers to figure out who was covered and who wasn't," Matthews said.
'I will annually deliver bills to the federal government.' - Deb Matthews, Ontario minister of health and long-term care
The Ontario Temporary Health Program will provide medical care to refugee claimants regardless of their immigration status.
While five other provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia — have adopted similar programs, Ontario's decision to administer these benefits is significant because 48,900, or 55 per cent, of all refugee claimants in Canada live in the province.
Matthews said Ontario has estimated it will cost the province $20 million a year to fill the gap in health-care coverage for refugee claimants, but that she'll be sending the bill to Ottawa — even if health care falls under provincial jurisdiction.
"The federal government has a very clear responsibility to provide care to refugees... We will not just absorb it and pretend that it's our responsibility, because it's not. I will annually deliver bills to the federal government," Matthews said.
Alexander told reporters on Wednesday that he and Matthews had a good discussion, but he "strongly" disagrees with her position and that "Ontario taxpayers will ultimately decide whose view they support."
"When it comes to our federal government's refugee reform, there is no room for disagreement," Alexander said.