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Over 500 respond to call for change

59 Cent Campaign pushed Tories to restore benefits

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Five Winnipeg university students worried about the health of refugees are responsible for a lot of change.

More than 500 envelopes containing change were sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanks to their 59 Cent Campaign.

"Approximately 500 letters have been received with a little under $350 in them," said Andrew McDougall, director of communications for the Prime Minister's Office.

The campaign in late June by students at the Canadian School of Peacebuilding at the Canadian Mennonite University asked all Canadians to send Harper 59 cents -- what it would cost every Canadian a year to restore health-care benefits to refugees.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced it would stop paying for supplemental health benefits for refugees during their first year in Canada starting June 30.

The cuts to things like prescription medication and prosthetics prompted health-care professionals to rally across Canada, including in Winnipeg at The Forks on June 18.

The university students took action, too, creating a video posted on YouTube showing people finding loose change in couch cushions and sock drawers, then mailing 59 cents to the prime minister.

By August, nearly $350 in change was received, said McDougall in Ottawa. It ended up with the Privy Council Office, he said.

"This money will be used to pay down the federal deficit, which is a burden on all Canadians," said McDougall.

It won't make much of a dent in the deficit, but it hammered home a point, said Matt Dueck, one of the students behind the campaign.

"The message got there as clearly as 500 people standing on a street corner protesting," said Dueck, 25. "The Prime Minister's Office may be downplaying those numbers," Dueck said. "But for 500 people to write a letter, put some change in it and walk to the mailbox, that takes a lot more motivation and more moral obligation."

Between the doctors and health-care workers rallying across Canada and their 59 Cent Campaign, their voices were heard, said Dueck. The government has said government-assisted refugees will be able to keep their supplemental benefits.

"People wanted to see the funding reinstated," said Dueck. "We provided a grassroots push from everyday citizens."

The government hasn't acknowledged it made any changes to policy, though. And privately sponsored refugees are still only eligible for "urgent or essential" care.

"The problem is, what's considered urgent or essential?" asked Sharry Aiken, a law professor at Queen's University. "That's not communicated to the public or the people concerned."

Doctors and policy watchers have cried foul over the lack of clear information on matters of health and which refugees are covered for what.

"All of that should've been done with a lot of public consultation," said Tyler Sommers, the co-ordinator for Democracy Watch in Ottawa. "It will drastically affect the lives of a lot of people."

Aiken said the lack of information from the federal government is intentional.

"I don't think there's any miscalculation. This measure was designed to appeal to average taxpayers and get you onside: Pitch the notion that, somehow, refugees are getting something that you don't."

That distorts reality, she said.

"A lot of people get benefits through provincial health programs," and from employers, said Aiken. "It made it sound like they were getting an inordinate benefit other people don't get."

And as a cost-saving policy, it's "penny wise and pound foolish," Aiken said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2012 A9

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