A group of 15 grassroots Manitoba community organizations believes the province must guarantee that everyone has fair access to health care, and they want to keep that issue alive in the province’s political discussion.
Since its abolition in 2018, international students, migrant workers, refugees, and undocumented immigrants have been denied access to publicly financed universal health care in Manitoba, but the Healthcare for All movement is working to restore it.
“The government should stop treating humans as numbers for economic purposes, but see value in us and extend health coverage to us,” Judith Oviosun, the coordinator of the provincial campaign for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, said at a news conference November 25.
Oviosun, a Nigerian, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba earlier this year. Before the modification to the Health Services Insurance Act in 2018, she had access to publicly financed health care as a student, which the province said would save more than $3 million per year.
However, students have felt like “easy targets and cash cows” of the Manitoba government since then, according to Oviosun.
“This is just plain discrimination and we can just see this policy for what it is, as being racist, because the government is single-handedly picking and choosing which Manitobans should have access to health care and who shouldn’t.”
She isn’t the only international student or migrant worker who believes the provincial government has shunned them. A University of Minnesota microbiology student, Tolani Olanrewaju, has private health insurance, but she still needs to spend $65 practically every time she visits the doctor.
She got a CT scan in August and was told she would get the results in a few days. After two months, she finally got her answer. When Olanrewaju called the clinic, she was informed that the delay was due to her private health insurance.
“It makes me less inclined to want to go [get] health care, and sometimes I postpone things that I should get checked,” she said. “Like right now, I probably should get my dentist appointment done, but [those are] things that make it very inconvenient for us. Health care is not accessible and it makes things really hard.”
There are 11,141 international students who are admitted to public post-secondary institutions, and all international students must pay health insurance payments in addition to their tuition. International students at the University of Manitoba pay $1,032 for a full year of Manitoba International Student Health Plan coverage.
The plan “provides international students with primary health coverage, allowing them to access medical services in Canada from doctors, clinics, and hospitals,” according to the University of Manitoba. Migrant labourers confront their own set of challenges. Those having a work permit for more than a year have immediate access to health care.
According to Diwa Marcelino, an organizer with Migrante Manitoba, which works for migrant workers, workers with a work visa that lasts less than a year must acquire their own health coverage, which is usually limited to emergency operations. They are less likely to complain about harassment, working conditions, or discrimination, he claims, since they are afraid of losing their employment, job status, or health insurance.
Rico Manaloto arrived in Canada in 2019 after working as an industrial butcher in the Philippines.
“Migrant workers need health care as a right. They don’t need health care to be put over their head like a dangling carrot for them to shut up and be quiet and continue to be exploited by their employers,” Marcelino said. “We need health care for all and we need it now.”
He is one of Manitoba’s more than 12,000 temporary migrant workers, but he was laid off in June and is having difficulty finding new work. “There’s a lot of companies that I applied [to work] for and they called me to be employed with them, but unfortunately they don’t allow me because my work permit is still tied up in name with a previous employer,” Manaloto said.
He applied for permanent residency in Canada, but it is still in the process of being processed. When Manaloto’s visa expires in August 2022, he now has to worry about his health insurance running out. “I am appealing with the government for my…application to have my permanent residency here in Canada so that I could stay here and find a job easily, and to have good health insurance, public insurance,” Manaloto said.
Healthcare for All initiated a petition on the website of the Canadian Federation of Students, which had nearly 500 signatures by Wednesday night. The NDP has pledged to read the petition several times in the Manitoba Legislature in an attempt to persuade the government to reverse course.
A government official told CBC in an email that Manitoba is “a destination of choice for many” and “quite cheap on many fronts.” According to the statement, the province is “dedicated to the safe arrival of both international students and new immigrants,” and will try to keep health care affordable.