By Paul Everest/London Community News
A London doctor identifying himself as a Palestinian refugee and decrying federal cuts to health care coverage for refugees disrupted a federal funding announcement in London Thursday morning (July 5).
As federal Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley was about to announce more than $112,000 worth of government grants for the efforts of the London Employment Help Centre (LEHC), Scouts Canada and the London Potters Guild to allow their clients and members with disabilities to participate more fully in each organization’s programs, services and facilities, when Tarek Loubani, 31, stepped forward and interrupted the minister.
“I am here to oppose your government’s policy and to speak up against your policy with the refugee health cuts,” he said. “The people of Canada and the physicians of Canada object. We have made our objections clear through out associations and yet your government has not acted quickly enough.”
Changes to Canada’s interim federal health program, which provides extended health care benefits such as vision and dental care and prescription drug coverage to refugees, took effect June 30. Now, health care coverage for refugees only includes emergency services or treatment of diseases deemed a threat to the public. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney clarified earlier this week, however, that government-assisted refugees in Canada would still receive supplemental coverage.
But Loubani, who said he is an emergency room physician at London Health Sciences Centre, told Finley and a small gathering at the LEHC on Highbury Avenue where the announcement was taking place that the consequences of the government’s changes to refugee health care coverage is a matter of “life and death.”
“In my emergency room, if a person comes in with a heart attack, they’re not allowed to receive treatment,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”
Other doctors across the country are also protesting the cuts and Loubani asked Finley to support their actions. “Please, will you denounce the cuts and will you accept that Canada is supposed to be a place where refugees are welcome and where they’re to receive equal health care, just like all Canadians?”
Finley responded by saying she stands behind the health care changes. “I support my government’s position,” she said, suggesting Loubani “get all of the facts.”
“I have all of the facts, believe me, I’ve probably read more up on this than you have, minister,” Loubani said.
Finley, members of the LEHC and a manager at the mall where the LEHC is located all asked Loubani to allow the announcement to continue and informed him the police had been called.
“I’m very sorry minister, I cannot let you continue until the position of your government changes on this issue,” Loubani said. “We’re talking about people’s lives here, we’re not talking about some very esoteric issue here.”
The mall’s manager then asked Loubani to leave, threatening to ban him from the facility if he did not comply. After several minutes, Finley and London North Centre MP Susan Truppe, who had introduced the minister at the announcement, left the LEHC’s foyer and retreated to a back room.
Stan Stanek, chair of LEHC’s board of directors, told Loubani he was disrupting a very important announcement for London with his message. “This is not the venue to do it. There are other channels of doing it. I would ask you to respect what we are doing here,” he said, adding that Loubani should make an appointment with the appropriate member of the government to voice his concerns.
Although apologetic for interrupting the LEHC’s activities, Loubani stood his ground and said the government has ignored requests to discuss the issue.
“The government has refused meetings regarding this issue when it comes to almost all of their ministers,” he said, adding Finley used to be the minister of immigration. “This is not something over which the government has been having a frank and forthright discussion.
“They have been trying to communicate through communiqués and that is why we have to be here.” He went on to say he had every right to voice his concerns in the minister’s presence. “The minister is making herself available in public, I am a member of the Canadian public, I’m a voter.”
Loubani told reporters he came to Canada as a refugee claimant in 1991 and without Canada’s health care system, he never would have had the opportunity to practice medicine in this country. He said without the same benefits, refugees in Canada today will face many dangerous health and financial challenges.
“Now what I see is that other refugees are being treated very poorly, such that a pregnant woman may not receive care, such that a person with a heart attack in my emergency room department, may not receive care. This is not a way to save money, this is a way to kill people,” he said. “These people who are not able to access care without the threat of a very large debt, what are they supposed to do?”
More than half-an-hour after Loubani disrupted the announcement, police arrived and escorted him out of the mall. London Police Service spokesman Const. Will Knelsen said Loubani was cooperative with officers and he was not charged.
When the announcement resumed, Finley addressed some of Loubani’s comments. “The plans to change the health benefits that the government is working on are simply to ensure that people who have applied as refugees and who have been deemed not to be refugees, they’re failed applicants, or who are bogus applicants from safe countries, all we want to do is make sure that they receive the same health care as other Canadians and not better,” she said. “It’s taxpayers who are paying for this.
“Hard-working Canadians do not expect failed refugees to get better health care than they do.”
After the announcement, Finley left the LEHC without taking questions from reporters. When London Community News requested further comment from her office, a spokeswoman said Finley had already responded to Loubani’s concerns during the announcement. As for the federal funding, the LEHC is receiving $12,600 for the installation of automatic door openers and special computers to assist people with visual or hearing impairments at its Highbury Avenue and downtown offices.
Nancy McQuillan, chief executive officer for the LEHC, said roughly 40 people who use the centre’s services will benefit from the accessibility changes. She said the centre welcomes between 2,500 and 3,000 clients a month. Scouts Canada and the London Potters Guild are each receiving $50,000 to improve accessibility at their local facilities.