It’s no secret that many progressive Americans fetishize Canada as a northern utopia: It has universal health care, it legalized same-sex marriage a decade before the United States did, and it has a cute, lefty prime minister (complete with a tattoo and a literature degree). After President Donald Trump restricted refugees, immigrants and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” Cue collective liberal swoon.
The problem is that Canada’s immigrant policy isn’t quite as dreamy as Americans might imagine. It includes a virtual ban on disabled immigrants that goes back decades: Under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, foreigners can be turned away if they “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demands on health or social services.” What this means is families rejected for having deaf children and spouses denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system.
The number of disabled immigrants rejected by Canada is not known. Most of those turned away do not have the financial means to appeal, and few cases get media coverage. But the cases that are brought to the public’s attention are eye-opening.
In 2000, multimillionaire David Hilewitz and his son, Gavin, were denied immigration from South Africa to Canada because Gavin has a mild developmental disability. Angela Chesters, a German woman who married a Canadian man abroad, was denied permanent residency after the couple moved to Canada because she has multiple sclerosis. The Chapman family was stopped at a Canadian airport when attempting to emigrate from Britain in 2008 because their daughter has a genetic abnormality. The Dutch DeJong family was turned down for immigration because one of their daughters has a mild intellectual disability. Felipe Montoya, recruited from Costa Rica to teach at a Toronto university, and his family couldn’t get residency because his son has Down syndrome. In 2015, Canada denied Maria Victoria Venancio health care and attempted to deport her after she became a paraplegic.
According to Roy Hanes, a Canadian social-work scholar and disability advocate, even though Canadian law does not explicitly state that disabled people are banned, the notion of “excessive demands” still guides the immigration process. Potential immigrants must undergo physical and mental health exams to prove that their bodies and minds will not be a burden on Canada’s socioeconomic structure. The policy, Hanes wrote, makes it “extremely difficult for people with disabilities to become citizens.”
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Hanes explains that this exclusionary policy arose from the outdated concept that people with disabilities are not useful members of an economy because they supposedly use too many resources. Some scholars think this policy might violate Canada’s Constitution.
The American system deserves plenty of criticism, but disability advocates on both sides of the border tend to see Canada’s policy as considerably more strict in this regard. Yes, Trump is attempting new restrictions on immigration, while Canada advertises its openness. But how many immigrants being rerouted from the United States will be turned away because of disability in Canada, a supposed sanctuary? Let’s not idealize a country that adheres to the ableist idea, rooted in eugenics, that any human being poses “excessive demands.”