Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Help for refugees... with strings attached

CD to raise money for city ministry fighting feds' cuts

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A faith group that has helped hundreds of refugees get settled in Winnipeg hopes the courts will make the federal government sing a different tune.

Hospitality House Refugee Ministry took the federal government to court when ended coverage for dental, prescription drug and vision care for privately sponsored refugees after June 30. That left the sponsors, mainly church groups, responsible for covering costs it argues the government promised and was under contract to provide.

The refugee ministry hopes the law is on its side. For now, it has some musicians drumming up support for its work.

Dr. Jonathan Wong and fellow music director Chuck Kroeker at St. Mary's Road United Church created a music CD that's raised more than $4,000 for Hospitality House.

"Incoming refugees need someone to give them a hand, to show them the ropes, and I feel that Hospitality House is championing that cause," Wong said. The musicians say the federal government's decision to cut the funding has made it difficult for refugees arriving in Canada.

"I've had the privilege of befriending a lot of immigrants and refugees making a life for themselves in Canada and a lot of them have needed a hand to them get started," said Wong.

The Winnipeg palliative care doctor said the refugees have done well, thanks to getting help in the beginning. It's not just a good deed, it's a good investment, he said.

"If we don't invest in education and good health care and preventative care, we know they're going to end up in trouble 10 or 20 years from now and end up costing the government even more in the future."

Their CD, Eighty Strings, is available at Quest Musique stores and online All of the proceeds go to Hospitality House.

A federal official has testified the government never considered its contractual obligations before cutting health coverage for refugees.

International human rights lawyer David Matas cross-examined the senior adviser to the director general of the health branch at Citizenship and Immigration Canada last month about the decision to cut refugee benefits.

Sonia LeBris told Matas the order-in-council eliminating supplemental health benefits didn't consider the impact on the agreement the government had with sponsoring groups.

The 1979 agreement said the federal government provides temporary medical assistance and "hospital, medical, and dental care will be provided to refugees after admission at a port of entry and prior to their arrival at their final destination."

In January, the federal government replaced the old agreement with a new one, with "partial, limited coverage for the duration of the sponsorship period."

Matas said the government didn't consider the long-standing arrangement it had with the sponsorship groups and what impact it would have on them. "... The contractual obligation by the Government of Canada to the private sponsors to pay health costs was never considered by the government before the decision was made," Matas said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2012 A13

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