Inside Politics

Cabinet's summer of refugee doctor discontent


Olympic triathlete Simon Whitfield is wrapped in a Canadian flag as Amateur Sport Minister Bal Gosal looks on, following the Olympic flag bearer announcement Thursday on Parliament Hill. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Doctors threatened to show up and disrupt events featuring Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers all summer long. Turns out, they meant it: at least if Amateur Sport Minister Bal Gosal's past week is any indication.

The medical community and others who work with and advocate for refugees are upset about the Harper government's decision to cut the interim federal health program for refugees as of June 30. 

The program provided extended health care benefits for things like prescriptions, dental care or optometrist visits that Canadians without private health insurance pay for out of pocket. Cutting it off for all but government-sponsored refugees is estimated to save some $100 million.

Doctors say they've tried to consult with the Harper government but neither Immigration Minister Jason Kenney nor anyone else will engage. So they've decided to be a thorn in the government's side instead.

Our CBC cameras captured this first at a Toronto press conference featuring Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, when a doctor and a medical student hijacked a medical isotope research funding announcement, engaged in some verbal sparring with the minister and eventually caused the event to be moved to another room.

Tuesday, it was Gosal's turn, during an event to promote Toronto as the host of the Pan Am Games in 2015. When the doctors representing another ad hoc advocacy group started yelling, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stepped up to the podium, hitting pause on Gosal's remarks until security escorted the dissenting doctors away. 

Things didn't end there for Gosal. On Thursday, during his remarks at the Parliament Hill event to announce Simon Whitfield as Canada's Olympic flag bearer, Dr. Doug Gruner, who participated in earlier protests and spoken to the media earlier this spring about the cuts, started yelling at Gosal near the end of his remarks.

Gruner is a family physician at the Bruyere Medical Centre in Ottawa. He works with a program that helps introduce refugees to the medical system, and he's done several stints working with refugees in third-world countries.

He told reporters he didn't want to insult Whitfield or take anything away from the Olympic announcement, but doctors feel they have no other choice but to take this confrontational approach to get their message across to a government that won't listen to them.

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On Friday, Gosal was dogged again by an angry doctor intending to deliver the same message at an event to announce government sports funding with members of Canada's track team.

Dr. Mark Tyndall is the head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital and teaches medicine at the University of Ottawa. He's been complaining about the cuts since early May, telling the CBC last month that Kenney's cuts were divisive, "pitting taxpaying Canadians who are dissatisfied with their own health care against some of the most vulnerable people in the world."

Tyndall went beyond that Friday after being escorted away from Gosal's event, getting personal about Gosal's background as an immigrant and accusing Kenney of hurting multiculturalism in Canada by cutting extended health care for refugees, an "experiment in human misery."

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"If Minister Kenney believes that all Canadians inhabiting our country should be short, round and white, then I think that's the kind of message that he's giving people," Tyndall told reporters.

Alexis Pavlich, Kenney's media spokesperson, wrote to CBC News that Tyndall's Friday remarks constituted "an obscene comment from a special interest activist with an axe to grind."

"It says much more about his credibility than it does about Mr. Kenney," Pavlich wrote, touting Kenney's record as immigration minister, during which "Canada has maintained the highest sustained levels of immigration in Canadian history, and the highest per capita levels in the developed world, with some 90 per cent of newcomers arriving from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean."

"Mr. Kenney is increasing by 20 per cent the number of resettled refugees invited here to start new lives, making [Canada] the world leader in refugee resettlement," Pavlich continued.

"These newcomers come to Canada to make our country a better place and, unlike Tyndall, are too busy working and too polite to spend their days heckling people."

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