Across Canada, universities and colleges send out recruiters to countries across the world to recruit students to study in Canada. These recruiters sell potential students’ stories of easy paths to permanent residency and citizenship, even though the reality of those stories are far from accurate. It's competitive to become a permanent resident or citizen of Canada, and many students don’t make the cut.(https://thewalrus.ca/the-shadowy-business-of-international-education/) Additionally, once international students arrive in Canada they don’t have access to all the rights and freedoms enjoyed by citizens. From high tuition fees to a lack of government support during the pandemic, international students have been treated unequally to domestic students. This blog post won’t explore all the issues international students and non-citizens face in the country or the province. This post will discuss specifically international students’ lack of access to healthcare in Manitoba.
MANITOBA HEALTHCARE FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
In 2018 the Progressive Conservative government under Brian Pallister repealed a clause in the Health Services Insurance Act that gave international students coverage under Manitoba Health.(https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-cuts-to-international-student-health-care-1.4595030) The Pallister government took back healthcare coverage for international students to save 3.1 million dollars, despite international students’ contribution of more than 400 million dollars to the GDP of the province.(https://news.gov.mb.ca/news/index.html?item=45099) Since then, international students have had to pay premiums for services that are free or discounted to all citizens and permanent residents of Manitoba. International students in the province are required to purchase insurance through their university, adding an extra cost to their tuition which is already double or triple that of what domestic students pay.(https://gazette.mun.ca/campus-and-community/call-for-action/)
This private health coverage through universities can expire as soon as students are finished school or like in the case of Calvin Lugalambi, between schools, leaving risky gaps in coverage. Lugalambi fell sick and needed emergency surgery soon after he finished his final term at the International College of Manitoba (ICM). It was only at the hospital that he found out his insurance through the school had expired. He was set to begin school at the University of Manitoba for the fall 2021 term, but he wasn’t yet covered under the university’s private healthcare provider. Lugalambi says he wasn’t told he would have to buy additional insurance to cover the time he was in between schools. His hospital bills came to an enormous sum of $123,000, and Lugalambi expressed doubt as to whether he could even afford his tuition for the fall term. He applied for retroactive insurance, but they wouldn’t cover his hospital bills, and an appeal to Manitoba Health was unsuccessful. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/u-manitoba-international-student-hospital-bill) Issues like this in the private healthcare schemes which cover international students can leave students saddled with enormous debt and no recourse.
COVID-19 AND INTERNATIONAL STUDENT SUPPORT
The Covid-19 pandemic hit international students hard, exacerbating issues they face regarding government funding, travel, and healthcare. The federal government increased the hours that a resident could work while in Canada on a student visa, and international students could apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). However, non-citizens were left out of the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) despite paying nearly triple the tuition of domestic students.(https://gazette.mun.ca/campus-and-community/call-for-action/)
In the fall of 2020, universities expected students to travel to Canada two weeks before classes began so they could quarantine. During this time international students weren’t eligible for insurance, risking their finances and their health if they were to need medical attention.(https://www.themanitoban.com/2021/09/international-students-struck-harder-by-pandemic/44664/)
After Calvin Lugalambi caught Covid-19 at the hospital, his stay was extended and his medical bills increased, with no recourse except a GoFundMe campaign to pay his bills.(https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/u-manitoba-international-student-hospital-bills-) During a global health crisis, international students and their health were an afterthought to the federal and Manitoban governments.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Health is a human right. Everyone should have the right to free, universal healthcare regardless of immigration status. Beyond that, international students contribute to our country socially, economically, and culturally. Recent statistics show that the Canadian economy is 22 billion dollars richer annually due to international students, and international students held over 170,000 jobs in 2019. These students pay taxes, and they spend money on tuition, living expenses, and tourism. Canada’s system of international education benefits universities and the Canadian economy with little regard to the students treated like “cash cows.” International students enrich our province and our country, and it is not justifiable that some provinces do not provide equal access to healthcare for these students.
The reason provinces can revoke healthcare for international students is because non-citizens don’t have equal treatment law. In some circumstances this inequality is justifiable. Due to the nature of citizenship, it's reasonable to restrict non-citizens' rights to vote and hold certain government jobs. However, it is not reasonable to restrict access to publicly funded healthcare to international students, who live, study, and work in Manitoba.
HOW DO WE SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?
A short-term fix to this issue would be to reform the Health Services Insurance Act to reinstate healthcare coverage for international students. A longer-term fix – one that would prevent Manitoba and other provinces from arbitrarily revoking international students’ rights to healthcare in the future – would be to recognize immigration status as a ground of discrimination under section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This recognition could also protect non-citizens generally. Dr. Yin Yuan Chen, a lawyer and an assistant professor of law at the University of Ottawa, has argued for this recognition, stating “to not recognize immigration status as a constitutionally-protected ground of discrimination risks giving government free rein to subject migrants, including international students, to poorer treatment for no justifiable purposes.” This broad recognition would be a first step in solving issues non-citizens face that were not covered in this post, and international students across Canada would be guaranteed the right to free, universal healthcare.
~Hannah Froese, Pro Bono Law Student 2021-2022