Jul 6, 2024

Canada’s Ableist Immigration Policies

Fort Erie Border Crossing, Fort Erie, Ontario | Ken Lund, Flickr
Fort Erie Border Crossing, Fort Erie, Ontario | Ken Lund, Flickr

By Sarah Rugheimer 

Canada is widely known for its multiculturalism, its universal healthcare, and its hockey obsession. Many regard it as the friendly northern neighbor of a much more flawed country. But is it really so friendly? Canada has a little-known law that includes some of the most eugenic and regressive immigration policies in the Western world. 

Canada frequently denies immigration to people who suffer from long COVID, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer, and even HIV in late-stage cases along with a host of other conditions deemed to be a drain on the Canadian health system. Denying immigration on these grounds is unusual for a Western country. In fact, Canada stands alone with Australia and New Zealand in these ableist immigration policies. When a country has a policy that explicitly excludes those with disabilities or genetic health conditions, its effect is plainly eugenic; it keeps out those with traits it deems 'inferior.'

I have multiple sclerosis; therefore, I am deemed not worthy by default to gain residency in Canada. I also have a named chair physics professorship at York University in Toronto, and I earned my PhD at Harvard and did postdoc work at Oxford. But it doesn’t matter; Canada doesn’t allow people with MS to immigrate.

Canada denied permanent residency to a professor at my university in 2013 because his son has Down’s syndrome. In 2011 and 2012, two families were denied for having children with Autism. These cases, and more, made national news. Public outcry led to a law change in 2018 to ensure families whose children had Down’s syndrome, autism, or HIV were no longer denied. However, a large portion of the law remains in place. The law is no longer in the public eye, but it still simmers in the background, denying talented workers immigration visas because of their medical status. 

Currently, applicants can be denied entry due to medical status for three reasons:

1)  An active communicable disease. This could include infectious cases of ebola, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, leprosy, and COVID-19 (only during the pandemic). Most countries have similar restrictions.  

2)  A condition requiring an excessive demand on specialists like neurologists and MRI technicians (who would both help treat those with MS). A friend with chronic fatigue was denied because of the potential strain on specialists in caring for long COVID.

3)  A condition is too expensive, meaning over the cost limit of 26,220 Canadian dollars per year (all modern treatments of MS are over this cost limit).

As such, nearly everyone with MS is deemed to be medically inadmissible by Canada. 

Notably, Canadians with MS and other disabilities can move to other Western countries with universal healthcare, or to the U.S., without their health condition creating an issue. Most countries share Canada’s restriction for serious communicable diseases but allow the person to enter once the condition is treated. Canada, however, will still deny people permanent residence based on this first reason (depending on how serious the government thinks the disease will be).

I know several talented workers who are prevented from coming to Canada by these restrictions. One colleague’s partner, also an astrophysicist, was denied entry because he has diabetes. In my own department, we recently lost a top hiring pick because his wife has chronic fatigue. With the extensive wait times to treat long COVID, a premier immigration lawyer who has argued these cases to the Canadian Supreme Court said their case was a “no go.”

When Canadians learn of my immigration problems, most are surprised because they are unaware of the law. And if they know about the law, they usually assume that all other countries have similar policies. It’s difficult for many to accept that progressive Canada would be uniquely eugenic. 

The U.S. doesn’t deny people on disability grounds because of their private medical insurance system. But if a person is unable to get private insurance and has a severe disability, they would be granted healthcare through the government program of Medicaid. Additionally, there are government and pharmaceutical programs in the U.S. for MS medications, as well as copays for people who are underinsured. European single-payer systems also do not discriminate based on medical condition. 

When I accepted my new faculty job at York University, it never occurred to me to see if people with MS could immigrate. For seven years I lived in the UK (another country with universal healthcare), and even became a British citizen, all while having MS. At no point did it affect my immigration process.

Compared to other Western countries, Canadian law is antiquated. It can be appealed on human rights grounds, but that process takes up to five years, and expensive legal costs are out of reach for most people. 

Medical inadmissibility is a law that needs change. Yet who will change it? I don’t know many people who would want to spend years in court, with a risk of becoming evicted and jobless, to appeal on human rights grounds like my colleague with his son with Down’s syndrome did. A friend just got his dad through the process on a human rights appeal, but it took four-and-a-half years, multiple appeals, and excessive legal fees. He had his entire family here as well to bolster his case, and the process still took that long, with no guarantee of success.     

Long story short: I’ve decided to leave Canada. I’ve taken another faculty job in Europe. I am not willing to put my career and sanity on the line for a “maybe.”

I do understand why this law exists. It’s a cold economic calculus that just happens to have eugenic overlap — even if that’s not the inspiration behind the law. In some hyper-utilitarian, Spock-like reasoning, only allowing highly qualified and healthy people to immigrate sounds ideal. Indeed, since other countries will allow your disabled immigrants to move to their country, your influx of only healthy people combined with a higher outflux out of people with disabilities will over time make your country Darwinianly fitter. 

That may sound uncomfortable, dystopian even, but there are others who want to do the same. I hosted an Airbnb in Scotland, and a guest of mine found out I had MS and then spent the next two hours telling me that she thought I was a drain on the National Health Service and shouldn’t have been allowed in. 

Ultimately though, this is a dehumanizing view. I have felt every single day since I arrived in Canada (and for those two hours in Scotland) that there was absolutely nothing I could do to be worthy. No amount of positive impact I could have in the country, no amount of taxes I could pay as a citizen, could erase my disability. But that can’t be the whole truth of my existence. I’ve climbed Denali, a 20,310 ft mountain, carrying 125 lbs of gear in 2022, and I did it again last month. I am fitter and stronger than probably 99% of Canadians. I have a good job that I love: teaching the next generation of Canadians my passion for science. I’ve been on Canadian TV and radio 75 times in the last year and a half discussing the latest news in astronomy. 

I also have MS.

I hope Canadians (and Aussies and Kiwis) reading this feel motivated to write their MPs and demand that this law change. There might not be the political will right now, but I believe the public opinion is there and the desire to change will compound if people take action. 

For everyone else, I hope you can feel a bit prouder of your country. 

Prof. Sarah Rugheimer is an astrophysicist and the Allan I Carswell Chair at York University in Toronto. She researches how to detect alien life on an exoplanet atmosphere by looking for atmospheric biosignatures. Her astrobiology course for the public, "Searching for Extraterrestrial Life," is available on Amazon Audible Originals.

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