Federal disabilities minister 'frustrated' after family denied residency over daughter's health needs
Carla Qualtrough hopes to reverse presumption that people with disabilities burden the system
An advocate who says it is "unfair" that an American family was denied permanent residency due to the potential costs of their daughter's health problems has found an ally in Canada's minister of persons with disabilities.
The family of six moved to Canada from Colorado in 2013 and have built a business in the town of Waterhen, Man. Their work permits expire in November.
When they came to Canada, Jon and Karissa Warkentin didn't know that their daughter Karalynn, then two, had special needs. She was diagnosed in 2014 with epilepsy and global developmental delay.
In April, they received a letter of rejection from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which stated Karalynn's health condition might cause "excessive demand" on health or social services.
Allen Mankewich, an advocate for people with disabilities, criticized the immigration system, which he said excludes people if their health needs are expected to cost more $6,655 annually.
"I think it's unfair because it just puts a price on someone's life, and as people with disabilities, we're always trying to work against those kind of attitudes that our lives are expensive or that we'll create excessive demand or that we'll be a burden on society," he said.
New law aims to prevent discrimination
In an interview with CBC's Information Radio on Friday, Carla Qualtrough, minister of persons with disabilities, said she agreed "wholeheartedly" with Mankewich.
"Especially when he talks about how we as Canadians with disabilities feel like we are told from the very beginning that our needs are expensive and burdensome," said Qualtrough, who is legally blind.
Qualtrough said her mandate as minister is to create a new law to address barriers to civic and economic participation "so that it's not presumed that a disability will impede someone's ability to achieve anything, whether it be citizenship or employment or anything," she said.
Qualtrough said she has worked "very hard" with Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen on this issue.
"It's something that frustrates me and has frustrated many Canadians with disabilities over the years.," Qualtrough said. "And hopefully with the creation of this new law, we're going to have a process to look at all of our policies at the federal level to ensure that these barriers are not created on a number of different tracks."
One of the goals of the new law will be to prevent discrimination before it occurs. Currently, Canada's human rights system only takes action after people experience discrimination, Qualtrough said.
"We're going to create a law that removes those barriers and sets expectations so that we don't have to wait for people to be discriminated against,"she said.
Presumption of burden
Mankewich acknowledges that Canada's immigration system is set up to protect health and social services, but he argues immigration officials can't predict how much Karalynn's health problems will ultimately cost.
"Doctors have made mistakes before with their diagnoses, so maybe there's a chance that she'll be able to contribute to our economy," he said.
"We have to reverse that presumption [of excessive demand] and if it's actually proven, then that's a more difficult conversation to have. And I can tell you personally that I don't think that's the lens through which we should make these kinds of decisions," Qualtrough said.
On Wednesday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada sent an emailed statement to CBC News stating that it "is tasked, by way of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, with protecting Canada's publicly-funded health and social services."
The federal official handling the Warkentins' file had asked them to explain how Karalynn would not be a burden on the health-care system, and to submit relevant documentation before the final decision was reached.
In the office's email statement, it said that with no additional information sent, the "decision to refuse the PR [permanent resident] application was maintained."
The agency added: "Such decisions are not arrived at lightly."