Where the hope is for our most vulnerable

Immigrants arrive to Canada in better health than 5- years later. Why is our free, high-quality healthcare not serving our newcomers better?


Community Health Centers in Ontario are on the front lines in providing comprehensive primary health care to new Canadians. Adapting our services particularly for those CHCs in urban settings, to meet the needs of immigrant populations is what we do; in fact it is fundamental to our model of health and wellbeing which at its core recognizes that everyone matters.

In Canada roughly 20% of the total population is foreign born (6.8 million people). Most come to Ontario to live. One third of new immigrants settle in well. Another third struggle a bit and the last third, struggles a lot.

Accessing the health system and then navigating through it, is so daunting for new Canadians. The situation got even more challenging in the last few years when the federal government cut funding to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which provided coverage for primary or preventive care treatment for refugees and refugee claimants.

So odious were these cuts that a federal court ruled this past summer, that changes to the IFHP “jeopardize the health, and indeed the very lives, of….innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks and outrages Canadian standards of decency.” And yet the federal government intends to appeal the court ruling in spite of the objections of over 10 national health care associations including the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres.

This is shameful behavior on the part of the federal government.
There is no evidence that the cuts to the IFHP will deter bogus claimants as the federal government suggests, instead the likely scenario is refugees with chronic diseases such as diabetes will have to seek more expensive care through hospital emergency departments. As well, changes to the IFHP will put the health of Canadians at risk by increasing the chance that infectious diseases such as tuberculosis will go undiagnosed.

Consider the following example at the Somerset West Community Health Centre in Ottawa. A senior woman from Somalia, claiming for refugee status, arrived to Canada prior to the IFHP cuts. She has seen an Ophthalmologist with regards to her diminishing vision and was told that she will require cataract surgery for both eyes. The client was waiting to hear from the hospital regarding her surgery date, when the IFHP cuts went into effect.The Opthalmologist refused to do the surgery fearing that she will not be reimbursed by IFHP for her service.

Examples such as this are familiar to many health service providers and absolutely frightening to refugees and refugee claimants who are some of the most vulnerable people in Canadian society. That is why for the last three years there have been demonstrations on Parliament Hill and in many other cities across Canada, calling for the federal government to reverse the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program. 

Unfortunately the appeals for a moratorium on the cuts go unanswered.
The voice of Community Health Centres will remain loud on this issue.  Community Health Centres are the only model of primary health care that truly considers the totality of our communities and its’ member’s needs. In the case of refugee claimants and refugees this need extends to a healthy, evidence based public policy as opposed to the divisive, fear mongering policy of the current federal government.

Community Health Centres and their partner agencies are working with funders to improve the immigrant experience. In Ottawa, CHCs have developed the multicultural health navigator program; helping newcomers access and navigate the health system. We are also currently working on developing a model that would extend language interpretation services. New models for crisis counseling services are being implemented.

Invariably, it is at the community level, where the rubber hits the road, where innovative new programs for immigrants will flourish. That is where the hope is.  
Jack McCarthy
Executive Director
Somerset West Community Health Centre
Ottawa Ontario