April 17, 2018 6:37 pm

Father of son with autism calls Canada’s new immigration policy a ‘blessing for all of us’

Samrat Saha and his family were denied residency in Canada because of his son's disability. But recent changes to Canada's immigration policy mean he and his family could be allowed to stay, Carolyn Jarvis reports.

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After Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, announced major reforms to Canada’s immigration policy on Monday, making it easier for persons with disabilities and their family members to immigrate to Canada, advocates, lawyers and those affected by the law are speaking out.

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Some have expressed caution – saying they’re worried about who will pay for the changes or that the changes don’t go far enough toward ensuring equality for persons with disabilities – while others say they’re overjoyed Canada has taken a principled stand on protecting the rights of all people, especially children with disabilities.

READ MORE: Trudeau Liberals to overhaul ‘discriminatory’ immigration law targetting people with disabilities

“After getting the good news – I was driving so I had to be careful – I was pretty excited,” said Samrat Saha, 38, whose family was denied permanent residency in Canada last May because his six-year-old son, Rajarshi, has autism.

“We’ve all been waiting for this change for a long time,” he said. “Because disability is not by choice, it’s by birth, right? And I don’t think anybody should be discriminated against based on their disability.”

The changes Saha is referring to were announced Monday by Hussen. They reverse many of the key components of a 40-year-old policy known as “medical inadmissibility” due to excessive demand.

As currently written, the law allows the government to deny residency to an entire family if even one person in the group has a disability or medical condition that could place “excessive demand” on Canada’s publicly funded health and social service systems – meaning it will cost more than $6,655 a year to care for them, a figure the government says was the average, per-capita health and social service spending in Canada in 2016.

WATCH: Immigration Minister announces major changes to Canada’s immigration policy for people with disabilities

But after Monday’s announcement, Canada will no longer consider certain costs when deciding if someone can come to Canada – such as special education costs for children with intellectual disabilities. The government said it will also triple the cost threshold for denying someone based on medical conditions to nearly $20,000 a year.

In making the announcement, Hussen said Canada will no longer consider people with a disability as a “burden” when they apply to immigrate.

WATCH: Immigration minister provides little detail on who will pay for additional medical costs

For Saha, a software engineer with an advanced university degree, this announcement means he and his wife no longer need to worry about their future in Canada – or whether they might be forced to leave.

“It was a pretty exciting day,” he said. “I can now reapply for permanent residency, which I am already in the process of doing. And, of course, now I will not be discriminated against and my son will not be rejected based on his disability.”

Advocacy groups say changes don’t go far enough

Following Monday’s announcement, advocacy groups representing those often affected by the law – such as migrant workers whose children have disabilities and people with HIV/AIDS – were quick to respond to the changes, saying the government didn’t go far enough toward ending a “discriminatory” policy they say unfairly targets people with disabilities and their immediate family members.

READ MORE: Canada rejects hundreds of immigrants based on incomplete data, Global News investigation finds

In a joint statement released Monday, representatives from several groups – the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Migrant Workers Alliance – said the government failed to do the right thing by not eliminating the law altogether. They pointed to a parliamentary committee report from last December recommending the law be repealed as justification for their feelings.

“Organizations representing key groups of immigrants excluded from Canada due to medical inadmissibility are very disappointed,” read the statement.

“While explicitly agreeing with the Standing Committee’s recommendation [that the law should be repealed, the government] has failed to bring its policies in line with inclusivity for persons with disabilities and with Canada’s domestic and international human rights obligations.”

READ MORE: Immigration Canada ‘breaking the law,’ when denying some disabled applicants, say legal experts

The government disagrees with this position. When directly challenged on whether keeping this law in place – albeit in a limited fashion – which only serves to perpetuate a system that discriminates against people with disabilities, Hussen said he believes it does not.

“It is vital that we ensure greater accessibility and opportunities for Canadians with disabilities,” Hussen said on Monday. “Sadly, this has not been the reality for many newcomers to Canada over the last 40 years.”

“The decision to deny applicants with low-cost health conditions or with dependent children who have special needs has profound consequence for these families, as well as the Canadian communities that welcome them,” he said. “We must take the steps needed to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Canada and highlight this as a core societal value.”

Meanwhile, Adrienne Smith, an immigration lawyer from Toronto who’s been an outspoken opponent of the law says it remains to be seen how the government will implement these changes.

“Obviously, this is a very positive first step,” she said. “For right now, the government has responded to some of the negative media attention they’ve received about the way they treat people with disabilities, but it remains to be seen how this actually plays out [in the future].”

Gov’t reaches out to families profiled by Global News

Following the announcement Monday, officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reached out to several of the families profiled by Global News in the series Inadmissible, an eight-month investigation that revealed serious flaws with the way the government handles residency applications of persons with disabilities.

One of the families contacted by Immigration Canada was the Warkentins, who moved from Colorado to Waterhen, Man., in 2013 to fulfil their lifelong dream of owning a hunting and fishing lodge.

WATCH: Canada’s immigration minister considers scrapping ‘discriminatory’ law that rejects immigrants

But their application for permanent residency was denied by Immigration Canada because their six-year-old daughter, Karalynn, had epilepsy and a mild intellectual disability. Their application was denied despite the fact they’d invested more than $600,000 into the Canadian economy and had become a fixture in their local church and community.

Jon Warkentin, Karalynn’s father, said officials from Immigration Canada assured him during the phone call that, going forward, the government plans to take a more holistic approach when assessing permanent residency applications that include people with disabilities. This means looking at the benefits they bring to Canadian society, not just the cost.

“If you treat Canada as a business – meaning, are you going to hire these people or not hire these people by having them come to Canada – you’ve got to look at the whole picture,” Warkentin said. “But if all you’re looking at is the cost side of the equation, and you’re not looking at the benefit side of the equation, then how can you possibly make a good decision?”

Warkentin said he believes the attention his family’s story received was a key reason for the government to reach out to him and for making the ultimate decision to reverse key aspects of its policy.

“Our story really highlighted the shortfalls of the previous system,” Warkentin said. “If there weren’t personal stories that people could connect with that really showed the faults in the program, I don’t think this would have changed. I think they would have just kept on going. I don’t think anybody would have really knew about it.”

A spokesperson for Hussen said the government contacted the Warkentins and other families because it was important to hear their experiences and share with them how things will be done differently in the future. He added that the government has been working toward greater inclusion of persons with disabilities since taking office in 2015.

Meanwhile, Warkentin believes the changes – rather than being viewed as a potential threat to Canada’s health-care system – should be seen as an opportunity. He thinks hard-working, professional families like his whose children have disabilities may now see Canada as a viable option instead of automatically writing it off as a place to live because of an “antiquated” law that he says sees their children as having less value.

“We’re all immigrants,” he said. “If someone has a special needs child and is thinking about moving to Canada – whether they’re lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. – they now don’t have to worry about this hurdle.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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