Rally demands free international student health care

Student groups say government is avoiding consultation meetings

International students, student groups and opposition parties gathered at the legislature last Wednesday to demand that the province reinstate free universal health care for international students.

According to representatives from student groups, the provincial government has been avoiding meeting with them to discuss the issue.

In 2018, the governing Progressive Conservative party repealed legislation from 2012 that granted international students access to universal health care.

Now, international students must pay $1032 per year for health coverage at the University of Manitoba.

UMSU vice-president advocacy Victoria Romero said that UMSU was at least able to make contact with the government last year, but that “communication soured” since a cabinet shuffle replaced Wayne Ewasko with Jon Reyes for the position of Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration.

“This year, after the first kind of meeting that we had with Minister Reyes, all the willingness to change and to really show up for students has dissipated,” Romero said.

“We haven’t been able to sit down for a second meeting with Minister Reyes, even though he’s promised us on multiple different occasions for one.”

NDP MLA and Critic for Economic Development and Training Jamie Moses said it’s “obvious” that the government is not listening to students.

“The students that I have met with have said very loudly and strongly that having provincial public health care restored for international students is a major priority,” Moses said.

“It makes sense in terms of better health-care outcomes for international students, it makes financial sense in terms of the amount of economic activity that international students bring into our province,” he said.

“Quite frankly, public health care is just something that we pride ourselves on as Manitobans, as Canadians, and it’s simply the right thing to do.”

Opposition parties show support as Reyes skips rally

Moses called the repeal of free health care for international students “a terrible decision,” and said that reinstating it would “definitely be a priority.”

Moses and other representatives from opposition parties also attended the rally in solidarity with international students.

A fundamental Canadian value is universal public access to health care in this country,” said Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew in his speech at the rally.

We see all post-secondary students, whether you are domestic students or international students, as part of the future of this country, so yes, we are committed and we’re going to fight for health care for you.”

Manitoba Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont echoed these sentiments in his speech, saying international students have been taken advantage of by this province.

The whole principle of Manitoba and the principle of Canada is that anybody can be a Manitoban and anybody can be a Canadian, Lamont said.

Even if you’re not Canadians yet, you are Manitobans right now. You are Manitobans right now, and our job is to make sure that every single Manitoban is looked after, and that’s not happening right now.”

According to Romero, Minister Reyes said he was unable to attend the rally.

That same day, Reyes posted pictures of himself posing with international students at the U of M to his Instagram account.

I had the opportunity to speak with international students who stated how their post-secondary education was affordable,” one of Reyes’s captions read.

It’s interesting to see him out posting, talking about how he cares about international students and that the government is interested in improving our province so that we can offer high quality post-secondary education and experience along with that, when they can’t even talk to us,” Romero said.

International students share their stories

In addition to this rally, international student and UMSU international community representative Kunal Rajpal was present for a rally for international student health care held at the legislature back in May.

He said that just days before that rally, he had been in a car crash on Pembina highway and although he sustained only minor injuries, it made him worry about whether he or his parents could afford to pay for health-care costs.

I’m in a potentially life-threatening situation and I’m thinking of hospital bills and money, and my parents going broke,” Rajpal said.

Fardeen Zareef, an international student who recently graduated from U of M, said that when his roommate was stabbed prior to the removal of international student health care, it was covered, while the current plan does not cover such incidentals.

Just thinking about that makes me sick to my stomach to know that we don’t have the basic rights,” Zareef said.

“We’re only under the leverage of a private company.”

Harjinder Singh, an international student from India and vice-president external affairs of the RRC Polytech StudentsAssociation, said that other international students he talked to described their student health insurance as the worst private insurance.

It is supposed to give us benefits, but it is giving us grief, Singh said.

He said some students go into debt to pay their bills while awaiting reimbursement for medical fees they are forced to pay upfront.

Rajpal said he missed two classes to attend the rally on Wednesday.

I did that in May, I’m going do it again if I have to, but I don’t want to do that,” he said.

I don’t want to stand here again and call on our government to give us health care, to call on our government to give us a basic human right, something we deserve.”

Speakers highlighted the contributions that international students make to the economy of Manitoba.

In 2018, Manitoba’s 18,275 international students contributed more than $400 million to Manitoba’s GDP.

The province cut health care for international students in 2018 to save $3.1 million a year.