A migrant worker from Jamaica who learned she had cervical cancer shortly after she started working at a farm in Nova Scotia says she owes the province nearly $65,000 after her private insurance was cancelled.

Kerian Burnett, 42, recently completed chemotherapy treatment, but she said she’s yet to receive a CT scan needed to track the cancer after being turned away from a scheduled appointment just days into her radiation treatment.

“I went to the hospital to do a scan and I was denied a scan because of not having a health card, so I’m not sure what is happening,” Burnett said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner. 

On Wednesday, Burnett was granted temporary

resident status until January 2024.

She said it’s unclear how or if this will affect the treatment she still requires or if she’ll still owe the province $65,000 for her chemotherapy treatment.

‘I went to purchase medication and my card was canceled’

Burnett arrived in Nova Scotia in April and was originally supposed to work as a strawberry picker for Balamore Farm Ltd. until October when she was to travel back to Jamaica.

She worked for two months until she started to experience pain. It was then she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Burnett said the Jamaican consulate booked her two flights back to Jamaica but a doctor in Nova Scotia ordered her not to travel.

Burnett said health insurance through Balamore Farm Ltd. was supposed to cover $100,000 in health-care costs.

After receiving about $80,000 for costs such as treatment for an abscess and medication, her insurance was suddenly cut off and she was no longer able to work.

“I didn’t hear from them. I went to purchase medication and my card was canceled,” said Burnett.

Burnett’s chemotherapy treatment lasted from Dec. 7 to Jan 12.

A Black woman with a short cropped hairstyle and wearing a red hoodie sit on a concrete ledge in a garden along the front of a house.
Kerian Burnett. Credit: Contributed

She said that aside from a counselor who reached out to her mother, she hasn’t heard back from the Jamaican government.

“I haven’t heard anything from the (Jamaican) prime minister. I haven’t heard from the member of parliament in my constituency. Nothing,” Burnett said 

Burnett said she hasn’t been in contact with members of the Canadian federal government but added, “they’re aware of the situation.”

“I don’t know if I’m cancer free and I don’t know what is happening, so I just can’t leave like that,” said Burnett.

Facing an uncertain future

Burnett was hired under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which is a federal program. The health care of its workers, however, is governed under provincial law, which varies from province to province.

This creates obstacles for the vast majority of seasonal farm workers in Nova Scotia, who tend to come from countries such as Jamaica and Mexico, according to Stacey Gomez, an advocate, and manager of the Migrant Workers program with No One is Illegal – Halifax/Kjipuktuk.

“So, for example, in Quebec, migrant workers get access to health care on arrival,” Gomez said. “In other provinces, you have to have only a six-month work permit. Here it’s a 12-month work permit, which systematically excludes and discriminates against migrant farm workers whose contracts can only be up to eight months a year.”

Gomez said what often happens with temporary foreign worker programs is a division of responsibilities. The temporary foreign worker program is a federal program, but there are elements of the program that are under provincial jurisdiction, including health care and labour rights.

“But sometimes what we see, unfortunately, is neither the federal government nor the provincial government wanting to take responsibility,” Gomez said.

“Health care is a provincial matter. It’s a provincial jurisdiction. Yet the provincial government is saying,Oh, no, this is not our responsibility.’”

Burnett and Gomez said they’re disappointed Nova Scotia Health Minister Michelle Thompson has refused to meet with Burnett to discuss her situation and the health care rights of other migrant workers in the province.

On Dec. 5, two days before Burnett began her chemotherapy, Natalie Borden, senior executive director for EHS, Benefit Programs and Eligibility, wrote to Gomez on behalf of Thompson.

Borden expressed empathy for Burnett’s situation before stating the province’s position. Borden’s letter read, in part:

In Nova Scotia, a foreign worker must have a work permit, that is valid for at least 12 months, to qualify for Nova Scotia health insurance, and they may apply for a Nova Scotia health card upon their arrival in Nova Scotia. However, when a work permit expires, or is no longer deemed valid by the IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], foreign workers unfortunately are no longer eligible for Nova Scotia health insurance.

The other option for seasonal workers who do not qualify for Nova Scotia health insurance is to obtain private coverage, either on their own or through their employer.  They or their employer would decide on the appropriate coverage and would be responsible for the cost.

Borden encouraged Gomez and Burnett to follow up with Balamore Farms Ltd. about their insurance coverage and “with IRCC, to determine if there is any other mechanism, they can suggest that would allow Ms. Burnett to remain in Canada.” 

I realize that this is not the response you wanted, and I thank you for the time and effort you have expended to advocate on Ms. Burnett’s behalf. This is an unfortunate situation, but these are the only options available at this time.”

Fundraising for the expenses not an option

On Tuesday, prior to receiving temporary residency for a year, Burnett said a GoFundMe page was able to raise $15,000 to help with her expenses but the donations would have to be returned because she doesn’t have a social insurance number.

“I’m thanking everybody that donated to my GoFundMe page, and everybody who has reached out to help in my crisis,” she said. “I’ve received many payments, I think all those monies will be returned back to whoever it was sent from. But I still want to say thanks to everybody.”

“We’re trying to change the beneficiary from me to someone else but it hasn’t gone well.”

Despite the unique nature of Burnett’s ordeal, Gomez said issues surrounding the rights of migrant workers in Nova Scotia are not new and will continue to persist as long as the four-month gap in work permits and health care eligibility for migrant workers in Nova Scotia remains as is.

“There’s no special program that exists for migrant farm workers, regardless of how many years they’ve been coming to Canada,” Gomez said. “And we meet workers sometimes who’ve been coming here for over 30 years, but they don’t have a kind of special program or access to permanent residence. And we do see that the lack of access to permanent residence impacts migrant workers in terms of limiting their access to essential services like health care and education, for example.”

A graphic that says Funded by Canada

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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  1. This but another example of modern day capitalism in which government’s only purpose is to support the capitalists. The options given were not the “only” options. They were the options set up to benefit businesses but the Minister could certainly declare an exception even if only for Kerian Burnett. The government could fix this easily by passing a law that says anyone who comes here to work gets health care coverage. But, it’s a capitalist government and wants to rid itself of looking after the health care of Nova Scotians so it’s unlikely to take on foreign workers.

  2. This account of organized discrimination against Kerian Burnett, and all migrant workers, is truly shocking. Every doorway to honoring humane health treatment for her has been deliberately closed (before and after) her health issue presented itself. Exposure of migrant workers to agricultural pesticides has apparently not even been considered here (these include, but are not limited to, inhaled drift, foliar sprays, post harvest desiccants such as glyphosate, pesticides firmly bound to soil particles such as arsenates, pesticides that may be used specifically on strawberries ( https://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=ST ) as well as others). Regarding the length of work permits granted to migrant workers, it is interesting to consider that long term health damage from pesticide exposure is less likely to show up in 6 months rather than in 12 months. Hmmmmm.
    Given that Ms Burnett was initially promised health care coverage, without a doubt her work permit should be immediately and retroactively converted to 12 months.
    As a resident of this province, I am disgusted and deeply embarrassed by the frankly discriminatory policies of Nova Scotia toward migrant workers.