On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Sarah St. John and Omar Chu. They are organizers with the Vancouver-based migrant justice group Sanctuary Health, which began as an effort to respond to cuts to health care for refugees but quickly extended its mandate to include challenging all manner of barriers that migrants face in accessing services and resources.
Modern immigration regimes, including Canada’s, don’t just admit certain people to the country and bar others (usually based on standards that are useful to the elites within the country in question). They also play a major role in organizing the lives of those who are admitted, including determining what complement of barriers and risks they face, and what resources they have access to. In so doing, they wind together with more diffuse ways in which benefit and harm are distributed unequally along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on, and manage to have impacts that are both incredibly oppressive and really complicated. Most people who have not had to deal with the Canadian immigration system, or who at least have not faced the features that tend to be targeted at people who are working-class and/or from the Global South, tend to have no idea that these impacts even exist, let alone how they work.
Sanctuary Health came together several years ago after the Conservative government of Stephen Harper made major cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (or IFHP), a decades-old mechanism through which refugees and refugee claimants were able to access some kinds of health care resources while in Canada. These cuts left many residents of Canada newly vulnerable to suffering, illness, and death. Though Sanctuary Health initially mobilized to respond to the new needs created by these cuts, they soon recognized these were part of a much broader spectrum of barriers and gaps faced by people with a wide range of different migration statuses in Canada, from undocumented people, to refugees, to temporary foreign workers, to various sorts of permanent residents. So over the years, not only have they organized many drop-in health clinics for migrants and done work to push healthcare organizations to reduce barriers to their services, but they have broadened their scope to challenge many other ways in which migrants to Canada are currently denied the resources they need to live. This includes doing the slow, unglamorous education work to make sure that more and more individuals, community groups, and institutions develop some consciousness of how the Canadian immigration regime actually works and shapes peoples’ lives. And it also includes ongoing work to get Vancouver and other municipalities and institutions in British Columbia to adopt what is called “sanctuary city” or “solidarity city” policies, so that people can access services and resources regardless of their migration status, without fear of being detained or deported. St. John and Chu speak with me about the complexities and oppressiveness of the Canadian immigration regime, about the work of Sanctuary Health, and about the fight for refugee healthcare and sanctuary cities.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.