The local diocese of the Anglican Church has gone to Federal Court in a bid to reverse the federal health-care cuts to the refugee program.
In a hearing in Federal Court in Winnipeg this morning, the Rupert's Land Diocese made an application for judicial review, effectively asking the court to rule the Harper government cuts are a breach of contract with sponsoring organizations and order the government to keep them in place.
"All we want is a declaration of a breach (of contract)," lawyer David Matas told Federal Court judge James O’Reilly during a two-hour hearing.
The Harper government announced in April that it was trimming the health-care benefits provided to all refugees, eliminating what it considered supplemental benefits: dental and vision care, prescription drugs, counseling, prosthetics, wheelchairs and other similar services.
The move was supposed to save the federal government $100 million over five years.
In June, the government quietly amended the changes, restricting the cuts to only refugees sponsored by private, and mostly faith-based, organizations, allowing them for government-chosen refugees like victims of human trafficking, a cause championed by local Conservative MP Joy Smith.
Matas, who represents the Rupert's Land Diocese of the Anglican Church, said the court action seeks to restore the cuts only for those refugees who were brought to Canada under the terms of a January 2012 agreement with the federal government.
Matas said the non-profit faith-based organizations that sponsored the refugees did so assuming Ottawa would provide the broad coverage of health benefits in its Interim Federal Health program.
Matas said Ottawa acted arbitrarily, without consultation with the affected groups who now are faced with providing the extra care for the refugees.
Matas said the cuts were also discriminatory, adding the benefits remain in place for other refugees but not for those who come to Canada through privately funded organizations.
Federal government lawyer Joel Katz said Ottawa continues to provide basic health care to the affected refugees, adding it’s up to the refugees to find the means for the additional benefits if they want or need them.
Katz said the faith-based organizations that sponsor these refugees are under no legal obligation to provide the supplemental benefits.
Katz said the federal government has the right to alter existing programs or introduce new programs, regardless of who they might impact. Katz said that new programs could result in a breach of contract, adding however that doesn’t mean a court can order the changes to be reversed.
Private organizations entered into a contract with the federal government, Katz said, adding that they agreed to provide sponsored refugees with food, clothing, transportation and other necessities for up to 12 months. The contract does not stipulate the groups must provide health-care benefits, he said.
Katz said that if any of the faith-based sponsorship groups believes there has been a breach of contract, then they should sue the federal government and prove the damages they have incurred as a result of the breach.
Katz said that Manitoba opted to provide the supplemental benefits Ottawa cut, adding the Rupert's Land Diocese and its private partners have suffered no financial hardships.
After the hearing, Matas said that while Manitoba and Quebec stepped in when Ottawa withdrew the supplemental benefits, other provinces did not and the sponsoring groups are incurring unexpected costs to provide the additional benefits.
Matas said that if the court rules in the diocese’s favour, the ruling would be binding on Ottawa for all groups across the country.