Katimavik Completely Changed My Life for the Better but I have Misgivings about it Coming Back

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Image Description: A photo of nineteen year old me crouching in a refrigerator that has had all the shelves removed. I had short bleach blond hair and am wearing a white hoodie featuring characters from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic.

 

When I was 18, I was diagnosed as being autistic. I finally had an explanation for all the social misunderstanding and interpersonal faux pas I’d experienced. I now knew that every time I was punished for some mysterious crime with the all too frequent admonishment ‘It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” were not my fault. All those hours spent relegated to my bedroom wracking my brain to try and figure out why I was even in trouble suddenly made sense. Diagnosis for me was freeing. It was, however, still a diagnosis which said that I was medically predisposed to be terrible at navigating social situations, particularly in new environments with people I didn’t know.

So, obviously three months later I got on a plane to BC with the full knowledge and intention of moving into a house with eleven strangers.

I did this through a government-funded program called Katimavik which took Canadian or permanent resident youths (between 17-21) from all over Canada and divided them into groups of 11 and over the course of nine months placed them in three communities throughout Canada with a different project leader in each location. The intention was for us to do full-time volunteer work, establish strong links to volunteerism and engage with the varied culture of Canada by immersing ourselves in the communities in which we lived.

It was without question one of the most important experiences of my life. I can say without doubt that I would not be the person I am today without having done it or having known my housemates.

Nearly 12 years later though, I am conflicted about my experiences in Katimavik because I almost didn’t qualify to participate and because I know many more disabled people were denied access to that opportunity.

I have sat quietly with my discomfort over the fact that I was privileged enough to be considered “not disabled enough” to not be deemed ineligible. I was able to do this largely because not long after I left the program, the Conservative government defunded it. First rolling back funding so that it was a ghost of what it had once been and then ultimately shutting it down altogether.

The Conservative government is no more though and the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau (who was a staunch supporter of Katimavik in his pre-politics days) has reinstated the funding.

Katimavik was originally conceived of in the 1970s. It’s 2018 and I fear the discrimination that was built into the original program with remain in its rebirth.

This is significant not only for the injustice of denying disabled youths the chance at this kind of formative experience but because of the opportunities it leads to.

Prior to Katimavik, I was completely unemployable. I spent the first year after high school futily looking for a job to pay for university. I didn’t find one. I mostly spent the year playing housekeeper for my grandmother. She did pay me but was also clearly more interested in having company. So I did very little work as she constantly derailed my attempts to clean with conversation. I maybe worked 1 hour in every 5 spent at her house. I was only paid for what I worked. I made almost no money.

After Katimavik, with a resume that had been boosted by the volunteer work that I had put in at an elementary school, an employment centre, and a publicly run internet café (many people in the area didn’t have access to computers much less the internet) I found work (of the retail variety) relatively easily.

Katimavik gave me the skills and work history necessary to do that. My physically disabled, undiagnosed autistic self was otherwise just utterly unemployable. This is a reality for far too many disabled people.

One of the great perks of Katimavik is that if you get in, you are guaranteed work throughout the program. It’s just unfortunate that the program aggressively screens out disabled people. I almost didn’t make it in.

They successfully hid behind the fact that the houses were inaccessible as were many of the work placements. An argument that I suspect was helped by the fact that so much of the infrastructure for the program was conceived of and implemented well before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to the constitution.

Will that argument still get made in 2018? When they have the chance to start from scratch?

Part of qualifying for Katimavik hinged on passing a medical inspection. You had to get a doctor to fill out a long and detailed form that was then reviewed by the program itself.

It had questions like:

Do you (the doctor) have any reason to believe this person would have difficulty participating in physical activity?

Does the patient have any disabling conditions? Please describe limitations.

Anyone who used a wheelchair was immediately screened out. My cerebral palsy threw them and they assumed that my doctor must be lying or misrepresenting my physical capabilities. So I had to answer clarifying questions like:

Can you walk? (apparently, by not expressly saying that I could, they assumed that I couldn’t)

Can you run?

Can you swim? (I can, but it seems irrelevant because the nondisabled participants weren’t asked to confirm this and at least one of my nondisabled housemates couldn’t)

These types of questions do two things. They show that people will always assume inability from disabled people if the ability isn’t clearly stated even if other questions directly asking about physical limitations are also answered in ways that indicate ability. It also forced me to confirm that “I wasn’t that kind of disabled”.

As it was, my autism diagnosis came after I had jumped through those hoops so had again had to prove that I could participate. This time by acquiring a letter from the diagnosing psychiatrist saying that I was safe to be around children. A concern that didn’t exist prediagnosis.

I went through all of those indignities and I can’t claim that I didn’t know other disabled people weren’t making the cut. I had read a news story (that I, unfortunately, can’t find anymore) about a wheelchair user who tried and failed to force the program into accepting him.

I knew, that the program excluded other disabled people. I knew that but I went anyway. I went anyway and I reaped the benefits of the experience both at work and in the relationships I created with the people I met.

I absolutely would not be who I am now if I hadn’t. I probably wouldn’t be here feeling discomfort at the benefits of being not disabled enough to exclude.

I am uncomfortable though and Katimavik is back so that discomfort matters. It matters because I know what I got out of the program. I know I wouldn’t have a Masters degree. I wouldn’t be a PhD student.

Disabled people need access to coming of age experiences. Not just the work experience. The lived experience of navigating cohabitation with too many strangers in too small of a house. The experiences of misunderstandings and fights and learning to create boundaries.

Katimavik has always been fundamentally about creating a quintessential Canadian experience and by actively excluding disabled people, it reinforces how not apart of Canada we are unless we fit a narrow standard of “able-bodied enough” and a willingness to leave other disabled people behind.

It’s 2018 and I hope the new Katimavik does better but honestly, I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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Disability Discrimination and the Glorification of Canada’s “Ruthless” Immigration System

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Image Description: Canadian Flag. A red maple leaf on a white background with red vertical stripes at either end.

Today I came across two conflicting news articles, one of them Canadian, the other American. They both deal with the Canadian immigration system but they come to vastly different conclusions. The American article which appeared in the New York Times entitled Canada’s Ruthlessly Smart Immigration Policy, glorifies the Canadian by the numbers immigration system. Conversely, a Global News report looked at Canadian grown advocacy against that same immigration system. Their primary concern, the fact that the system is discriminatory against disabled people.

I have written previously about how the Canadian immigration system actively discriminates against disabled people and what this means for the status of disabled people within Canada and abroad. When I first wrote that article, it garnered very little attention but since the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States it has become one of the most consistently viewed pieces on my blog. As the issue is garnering attention again both in Canada and abroad, I think it’s time to revisit this issue in light of these two reasons articles.

Jonathan Tepperman, the author of the New York Times piece applauds Canada’s immigration system which is primarily a merit-based system. This means that immigrants to Canada have to meet certain criteria before they are able to immigrate to Canada. It differs from the American system which is primarily relationship based. Most American immigrants gain residency through a familial connection to someone already living in the United States. In Canada, family immigration is limited primarily to immediate families including minor children or a foreign citizen marrying a Canadian.

I am not going to actively compare the pros and cons of those two systems, I am however going to criticize again the Canadian system for how an almost entirely merit-based system leads to the systemic discrimination against disabled people. The Canadian immigration system actively excludes people on medical grounds. The natural consequence of this is widespread discrimination against disabled people within the immigration process.

Tepperman looks at the economic and educational outcomes for Canadian immigrants versus American ones and includes that the primary reason that outcomes in Canada tend to be more positive as a result of this merit-based system. He does not consider any of the other policy and legislative differences that exist between Canada and the United States. He does not consider how our government funded healthcare system for differences in education delivery and retraining might also have a significant impact on positive outcomes for immigrants in Canada versus those in the United States. He also does not consider the cultural differences between our two countries in which Canadians have a sense (accurate or not) that we are a welcoming and actively multicultural society.

Instead, he credits and extensively numbers based system which applies an economic value to human beings in determining whether or not they can have access to Canada. Regardless of the inherent discrimination that ultimately results from putting a dollar value on human beings.

Canada’s Immigration Minister claims that no one is automatically denied permanent residency in Canada based on disability and while this is strictly true it ignores how Canadian immigration policy is written in a way that disproportionately targets and excludes disabled people. It ignores the systemic discrimination in inherent in the way the law is written and also ignores how it is in conflict with the Canadian Constitution.

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states

(1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Not only does the Constitution guarantee this equality, it also recognizes that for those groups recognized to be disadvantaged in gaining equality that additional measures might have to be taken in order to ensure that equality is achieved, it continues,

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

And yet, the Canadian immigration system specifically excludes people from immigrating to Canada on the basis of health status. It determines whether an individual is excluded based on whether it considers an individual to be a potential “excessive burden”. Whether or not someone is deemed to be an excessive burden is based solely on medical grounds.

As the activists profiled in the Global News piece point out, the potential cost of an immigrant on the Canadian system is potentially more than just medical. It also pointed out that the way the financial figure is reached is shrouded in secrecy and lacks accountability. This lack of openness contradicts Tepperman’s fantasy of a clear and honest merit-based system.

Ironically, while Tepperman decries the focus on familial relationships that dominate the American immigration system, it is familiar relationships that allow the few exceptions to disabled people immigrating to Canada. Those who do make it through the system do so most frequently as children whose parents immigrate for work. The children themselves are seen as having no inherent value having been labelled potential excessive burdens but in successful cases, they are seen as acceptable burdens in exchange for the perceived value of the expertise and labour provided by a parent.

This issue continues to be timely not only because the continued discrimination against disabled people should be fought and protested until it is abolished but also because of the particular political climate of the United States. One of the potential reasons that my previous piece on disability and immigration to Canada has in recent months garnered so much attention is because of how American Republicans have been attempting to rewrite American healthcare law. They are attempting to repeal Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act and replace it with the BRCA (previously the AHCA). A healthcare bill which with the millions of people lose their healthcare coverage, see billions in funding removed from Medicaid and furnish a tax cut for the wealthy. People are justifiably frightened.

While previous elections have seen individuals jokingly stated that if the politician of their choice did not win that they would move to Canada, this election has seen that desire taken far more seriously. Unfortunately, those most likely to be negatively impacted by Donald Trump’s and the Republicans harmful policies are also those who are least likely to be able to escape falling victim to them. As a result, disabled people in the United States are fighting against these dangerous policies at the risk of arrest.

Canadian politics cannot help but be impacted by the realities of the current American government. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has utilized Canada’s softer reputation to create an image of opposition to the harsh realities of Donald Trump. One way that he does this is by claiming that all people are welcome in Canada.

Even though this tweet was written specifically in response to the American response to refugees, it is nevertheless false. Trudeau conveniently seems to forget that while Canada does take many refugees, it still actively limits the number of people that it will welcome into the country. Trudeau’s false universality and welcome also can be taken as hypocritical in light of how discrimination is coded into Canada’s immigration system. Human diversity after all includes disability.

Trudeau’s disingenuous image of universal welcome is also not limited solely to Twitter. He also made statements during his speech on Canada Day (July 1). He stated,

Louis St. Laurent referred to Canada as a place where people joined their talents without merging their identities and it’s true, Canada is a country made strong not in spite of our differences but because of them. We don’t aspire to be a melting pot, indeed we know true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity.

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers and our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from or what religion you practice or whom you love. You are all welcome in Canada.

(This section translated from French) But don’t forget that if Canada today is a truly multicultural country, outward looking and open to the world. This did not happen by accident. A 150 years ago, the very existence of our country depended on our ability to accept the notion that citizens of the same country could speak different languages and have different cultures. It all depended on peaceful and active coexistence between people different from one another. Over time, the bilingual character of our country has become a central and defining part of our identity… Across this country we speak French and English and hundreds of other languages.

(English again) And so, diversity has been at the very core of Canada. It’s the foundation upon which our country was built. We may be from every colour and creed, from every corner of the world…We embrace that diversity, while knowing in our hearts that we are all Canadians.

This is a particularly rose-tinted view of Canadian diversity and it is also a lie. Trudeau is far too fond of saying that everyone is welcome in Canada. He does not solely extend this supposedly welcome to refugees, his Canada Day statements are broader than that. The broader the intention the more clear the inaccuracy of the statement.

This is particularly relevant to how Canada and the United States deal with refugees. Our two countries have a “safe third country agreement” which bars refugees who have reached one of the two countries from gaining refugee status in the other. This has caused particular concern for some refugees in the United States who feel the current political climate is unsafe for them. Some of these people have decided to attempt to cross the Canadian border illegally in an attempt to get refugee status in Canada. Illegal border crossings can quite literally be disabling. Crossing the border can be dangerous and particularly if it is done in winter can result in people becoming disabled.

Trudeau’s false welcome to everyone beckons people closer to Canada only to potentially shove them away whether those people are refugees or simply disabled people seeking to immigrate.

Not only does our unjust immigration system needs to be overhauled as a matter of human rights and as a matter of justice. More presently as Canadians, we must consider that for those of us who stand in solidarity against Donald Trump’s policies. For the thousands who attended satellite Women’s Marches or who travelled to the United States to participate alongside our American friends. We must ask ourselves how accessible is our resistance. How welcoming will we be to disabled people who seek to come to Canada for fear that American legislation and policies threaten their lives? For those refugees who seek to leave the United States and come to Canada, will we care for them if they find themselves permanently injured along the journey. Will we demand that the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s words become our actual reality and insist that diversity in Canada includes disability?

 

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No, Canada Will not Cover Your Preexisting Condition

With the recent vote for the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to repeal and replace the Obama era Affordable Care Act (ACA), there has been a lot of discussion on who the AHCA will hurt. One of the (many) concerns is that the new legislation should it pass in the senate will roll back rules guaranteeing coverage for people with preexisting conditions. These changes if enacted would disproportionately affect disabled people. This has spawned the online protest #IAmAPreexistingCondition to put a human face on the people who at risk of losing their healthcare or who will see its cost skyrocket.

The changes have also spawned a lot of Canadian smugness and this meme has been making the rounds.

Trudeau Preexisting Conditions

Image description: Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, a white man with dark  hair in his forties gazes into the distance with his fisted hand touching his lip in a pensive expression. Text on the image reads “Hey girl, I’ll cover your preexisting condition”

The thing is the meme is a lie. In terms of how healthcare works in Canada, the language of preexisting conditions is generally meaningless. There are simply services that are or aren’t covered. If you’re in the system, you’re in the system. Canadians generally don’t talk about preexisting conditions the way Americans do because it’s a system we were either born into or gained access to simply by being Canadians.

The thing is though, even though we don’t generally use the language of preexisting conditions to discriminate in our healthcare system, there is still a lot of discrimination. As I mentioned, rather than excluding people based on preexisting conditions, there are simply services that are or aren’t covered. Whether a service is covered depends on whether it is considered essential. Many services largely associated with the care of disability are not considered essential. As such they either not covered and people who need them either have to pay out of pocket or seek private insurance or coverage is given at the whim of individual provinces.

This creates a second class access to the healthcare system for disabled people. We either may not have access to things that we need or our access to them depends entirely on where we live.

One of the primary principles of Canadian healthcare is that it’s supposed to be portable. You’re supposed to be able to get service regardless of your province of origin. This, however, does not apply to services that are not considered essential. So while I as a Saskatchewan resident have been able to get X-rays in BC (for an injury) and an ultrasound in Ontario (oddly enough for the same injury). I do not have access to consistent care related specifically to my disability because Saskatchewan may cover things that other provinces do not or vice versa and I can only access what is available in Saskatchewan.

This creates a couple of issues. There’s the fact that depending on your province of residence you may have less access to covered disability specific care. So the system is inherently unequal. There is also the fact that interprovince bureaucracies make it difficult to determine which services you should have access to while out of your home province or who to bill if you can figure it out. The outcome is that disabled people end up paying out of pocket for things that should be covered.

So for people within the Canadian system, there are still access inequalities. Inequalities that largely target the same groups of people likely to be disadvantaged if the AHCA passes.

The thing is, that isn’t the end of how the Trudeau meme fails. There is a scenario where access to the Canadian healthcare system does consider preexisting conditions. Immigration. Having a preexisting condition pretty much excludes a person from being able to access immigration to Canada. Which why this corrected meme needs to hopefully go as viral as the original (H/T Alex Hagaard)

Trudeau Meme corrected

Image description: The same meme as before except that text has been added over Trudeau’s face which reads “Except Canada doesn’t let disabled people immigrate #StopAbleism”

Immigration is pretty much the only circumstance where Canada considers preexisting conditions. So the meme is a lie. Canada will not cover your preexisting condition. If you have access to the system you are covered for a set of predefined essential services and the services that are most often considered inessential are those associated with disability.

So, no, Canada doesn’t cover preexisting conditions and flaunting healthcare access does nothing to address the very real dangers being faced by disabled people in the United States right now. This meme just taunts the people most negatively impacted by a potential adoption of the AHCA with lies.

*Note: I do not want to get into an oppression olympics competition here so comments along the lines of “suck it up Canada is still better” will not get through. They are reductive and also don’t address the disingenuous smugness over Canada’s healthcare system.

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Open Letter to Justin Trudeau: We Need a Canadians With Disabilities Act

Dear Justin Trudeau

You have just been elected as our new Prime Minister. Since Monday’s election, you have been in the news a lot. Today, I came across a story about how you helped carry a wheelchair user down the stairs to a subway station platform. I assume this was necessary because the station elevator was broken, though the Montreal Metro is notoriously inaccessible so it could really be anything.

While the media is applauding your “random act of kindness”, I can’t help but be more convinced that we really need a Canadians with Disabilities Act. I know we disabled people were thrown a legislative bone when we were explicitly included as a protected group under Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (after a lot of activism to fight governmental unwillingness, I might add). The Charter is however clearly not sufficient to meet the needs of disabled Canadians.

Physical access is still a huge issue. As are issues of social and economic access. I want to know that you and your government will work to help disabled people even when we aren’t right in front of you. I want legislation that will specifically address the needs of disabled Canadians, yet when I search the Liberal website, you have no specific policies dealing with disability. If you search for it, you will find only a statement on Veteran’s Pensions (which is important). I would however like to point out that by only dealing with disability directly when it is to do with veterans.

By doing this, you are basically creating classes of disabled people. This is likely not your intent but it is the result.

Ideally in a country where disabled citizens are truly equal, a story about a man having to be carried down the stairs–even if it is by Justin Trudeau–would be met with shock and outrage at the inherent inaccessibility of society. Not by celebrating a “random act of kindness” that should never have been necessary in the first place.

A few things I humbly think a CDA should cover,

Increased funding to ensure public transit is accessible, so that we don’t have to repeatedly hear how renovations are delayed due to budget restrictions. If you can afford to get able-bodied people on the subway, you better do the same for disabled people.

Limit bureaucratic barriers to services. As far as I’m concerned, I should only have to continuously prove that I have permanent brain damage if and when you produce peer-reviewed and repeated studies proving the existence of widespread medical miracles. Barring that, requiring constant documentation should only be required for people whose conditions are not permanent and then only at intervals suggested by their doctor not an arbitrary bureaucratic timeline.

Don’t allow provinces to penalize disabled students who travel out of province for school. We shouldn’t have to worry that we won’t be able to get a service in Ontario that we get without question in Saskatchewan.

Disabled Canadians deserve better, so do better,

Kim