Cancer, denied refugee claim sour Mexican woman's Canadian dream

A Mexican couple's dream of taking refuge in Canada is unravelling amid a misdiagnosed cancer, a lawsuit and rejected claims from Ottawa.

Couple from Mexico coping with misdiagnosis and cuts to refugee health care

Unwanted and Unwell

9 years ago
Duration 9:34
The CBC's Carolyn Dunn looks at how one refugee woman is coping after the federal government pulled back on benefits for some refugees, leaving her without any medical coverage.

A Mexican couple’s dream of starting over in Canada is unravelling amid a misdiagnosed cancer, a lawsuit and rejected refugee claims from Ottawa.

Maria Morales and Ivan Nava came from Tierra Colorada in Guerrero state in southwestern Mexico, a region controlled by drug cartels and corrupt police.

'I couldn't believe it. When they gave us the news, I felt so sad.'— Maria Morales

Morales's former partner, an architect and father to her now grown son, was killed for reasons that were never clear to her, she says.

"They had tied him to a chair," she said. "They beat him, I never wanted to know more. It hurt me too much."

A recent Amnesty International report said there are up to 15,000 gang-related murders in Mexico annually. Morales met Ivan a year later, and as thugs continued to harass and threaten them, the couple say they realized it was time to get out.

In 2009 they fled to Canada for safety and a fresh start.

"Our reason for being here is that there were people that scared me," Morales said. "They asked for money and because they knew Ivan was my boyfriend, they threatened me … of getting rid of him or me." 

Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer

They applied for Canadian refugee status and within months of settling in Okotoks, south of Calgary, both had jobs.

Then, in the fall of 2011, during a nightshift at Walmart, Morales started having stomach pain and bleeding. Within weeks, the symptoms were too severe to ignore. 

Maria Morales and Ivan Nava came from Tierra Colorada in Guerrero state in southwestern Mexico, a region rife with corruption and violence. (CBC)

"In November, I went to work with bleeding, and the pain was so strong and unbearable. Ivan took me to the emergency at the Rockyview hospital," she said.

Morales felt relieved when, after a biopsy, she was diagnosed with fibroids, which are non-cancerous tumours, and began undergoing standard treatment. 

But six months later, during a hysterectomy, doctors discovered Morales not only had cancer but that it had spread well beyond her uterus. She was given a grim diagnosis: Stage 4 cancer, much of it inoperable.

"I couldn't believe it. When they gave us the news, I felt so sad. I was with my husband and we hugged. We didn't know what to do. We couldn't believe it."

Morales's doctors ordered a review of that first biopsy result, which did show evidence of malignancy that was somehow it was missed.

In the six months it was left unchecked and without treatment, it grew from a disease that affected just two per cent of the tissue sampled into a highly invasive cancer.

Dream derailed

Morales's world and her hopes for a new life in Canada were shattered, she says.

Then more bad news arrived, this time in a notice from the federal government.

'It's a huge danger, it's only a matter of time before a life is lost.'— Dr. Ritika Goel

Effective June 30, the government curtailed the Interim Federal Health Program, which gave refugee claimants health coverage, including medical, dental and drugs.

The new policy cut off rejected refugees, those who had exhausted their appeals, from anything other than emergency life-threatening care or care for illnesses that pose a public health risk, such as tuberculosis.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, Morales and Nava were considered failed refugees.

Their claims were deemed "abandoned" because when they moved houses, they had registered a new address with Citizenship and Immigration Canada but not with the refugee board.

It isn’t known whether their claims would have passed, but the federal government is no longer providing most health care to the couple, including Morales's chemotherapy.

System vulnerable to abuse, says minister

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney touts the changes as a popular measure that will save Canadian taxpayers $100 million over five years. It’s a fix for a system long vulnerable to abuse, he says.

"The problem with the old, broken and dysfunctional system that we are now replacing is that it created all sorts of incentives for false asylum claimants to stay in Canada for years receiving generous social benefits including comprehensive and even extended health benefits," Kenney said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the system was old, broken and dysfunctional. (CBC)

But Dr. Ritika Goel, who works at a free medical clinic in Toronto that caters to refugees and new Canadians, says the new policy may have more dire consequences.

"It's a huge danger, it's only a matter of time before a life is lost," she said.

The clinic’s patient load has nearly tripled since the federal government changed its refugee health coverage, Goel said.

"I think what is even worse is there is probably going to be people who don't go to the hospital because they are afraid of getting that bill," she said.

"We are talking about essentially … people with high blood pressure not getting treated, waiting to have a stroke … we are waiting for people to essentially die before we take care of them."

New policy protested

Protests against the new policy are mounting.

Protests against the new immigration policy have grown since changes came into effect last June. (CBC)

This week, the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, which represents faith-based hospitals in the country, sent a letter to Kenney's office calling for the reinstatement of full health coverage for refugees.

And a group of doctors and lawyers has launched a legal challenge claiming the policy violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as international law.

Kenney has called the protests ridiculous and the work of activists.

"Once people have been deemed by our generous legal system not to be refugees, they should leave Canada. They don't get to sneak in through the back door and certainly have no obligation to force taxpayers to pay their health coverage let alone their extended and supplemental benefits," he said.

Couple still pays taxes

But Morales and Nava still pay taxes, said their lawyer Raj Sharma.

"Jason Kenney starts with the wrong premise. He starts with the premise that refugee claims in Canada are bogus," Sharma said.

'You see with this disease, you can never know when I will die.'— Maria Morales

"I think we have a moral obligation to provide health care to those individuals that require it and I think we have a moral obligation to extend health care and health-care coverage to those individuals by virtue of paying taxes into the system," he said.

Morales is now too sick to work. Nava struggles to take care of her between shifts as a drywaller.

Maria Morales is receiving life prolonging chemotherapy treatments from Alberta Health Services — but only because she was misdiagnosed, said lawyer Jeff Poole.

"The doctors are being asked by AHS to provide Maria with care and not be paid. And so it is an ongoing question for Maria and her husband Ivan as to whether or not they will get a huge bill at some later date," Poole said.

Morales says it’s an ironic turn of events — she would not be getting any treatment at all if not for an alleged medical mistake.

"They're giving me the treatment. At least with the treatment they're helping me, but only because what I believe is negligence happened at the hospital," she said.

Lawsuit launched

Morales is suing Alberta Health Services, Calgary Laboratory Services and the pathologist for missing her cancer when it was in its early stages.

Maria Morales, a refugee claimant from Mexico, is battling cancer and suing Alberta Health Services over her misdiagnosis. (CBC)

Because the case is before the courts AHS declined requests for an interview, except to confirm it will continue to provide chemotherapy for Morales.

In its statement of defence filed last month, AHS denied any wrongdoing in Morales’s case.

She and Nava have applied for permanent residency in Canada, this time based on humanitarian grounds because of her aggressive cancer.

Meantime, Morales says, she is trying to make peace with "the circle of life, with her God," and is  holding out hope her grown son will be granted a visa to visit her in Canada before she dies.

"You see with this disease, you can never know when I will die," she said. "That is what scares me a lot, not being able to see my son again."