A migrant worker who got a cancer diagnosis two months after arriving in Nova Scotia in 2022 said she’s “overwhelmed” with the news she’ll receive health coverage, and wants the province to provide health insurance to other migrant workers as well.

Kerian Burnett, a mother to six and grandmother to two, arrived in Nova Scotia from Jamaica in April 2022 to work on a strawberry farm. In September that year, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and her employer terminated her contract, leaving her without health insurance.

The Halifax Refugee Clinic and No One Is Illegal worked with Burnett to help her stay in Canada for treatment. In December, they sent an application to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) for discretionary health care funding, and finally received a response on Friday, Aug. 11. Burnett will be permitted to stay in Canada to receive treatment until January 2024. Since her diagnosis in 2022, Burnett has undergone radiation, chemotherapy, and has had three surgeries.

“I’ve been going through a lot, but I give thanks to everyone who is trying to help me in this fight,” Burnett said at a press conference at the Halifax Refugee Clinic in Halifax on Monday. “So far, I’m doing pretty great. I thank everyone for their support and their love that they’re sharing throughout this devastating time for me. I also thank the IFHP … it’s truly good news for me.”

“It’s an overwhelming feeling. I’m very excited about it. But we need to push for MSI for everyone.”

Application took months to process

Thiago Buchert, an attorney with the Halifax Refugee Clinic who worked on Burnett’s case, said they asked that the IFHP application be expedited given Burnett’s health, but it still took several months to process the application.

“Fortunately, she was able to receive some coverage during that time, at the discretion of the hospitals, but we’re very thankful, very happy that the federal government decided to approve this case,” Buchert said.

Burnett will have health insurance for the remainder of her temporary resident status in Canada, which will last until January 2024. Buchert said they will spend the next few months talking about what happens after that January deadline.

Buchert said they took a “two-track approach” with the case because there was such urgency in getting health insurance for Burnett. He said he was in charge of submitting the IFHP application, while Stacey Gomez with No One is Illegal was focused on the provincial government to see if they could cover workers the way other provinces do.

In Nova Scotia, migrant workers must have a one-year work permit to be eligible for MSI. Gomez said when they reached out to the province for help in Burnett’s case, the response they received was a “reiteration of these rules” and there was no flexibility to consider Burnett’s case.

A young Black woman wearing a grey toque and a fleece jacket over a striped top. She has a lanyard around her neck and behind her is a pink fabric sign that says MSI for Migrant Workers Now!
Kerian Burnett. Credit: Suzanne Rent

‘A win for migrant workers’ rights’

Gomez said they’ve been working to get MSI coverage for all migrant workers, and have an open letter signed by 26 organizations in Nova Scotia, as well as poster campaigns and other events.

“The decision in Kerian’s case is a win for migrant workers’ rights in Nova Scotia and in Canada, but we do need a permanent solution for all workers,” Gomez said.

In Quebec and Ontario, migrant workers who are employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program are eligible for public health care coverage on arrival in Canada.

“So, we’re continuing to advocate to the Nova Scotia government to ensure MSI for all migrant workers on arrival and everyone regardless of immigration status,” Gomez said.

Gomez said that while Burnett’s case is rare, they have seen migrant workers who are injured or severely ill who are repatriated back to their home countries without getting proper medical attention while still in Canada.

“So, one, I think Kerian has been so brave and courageous in saying, ‘no, I am going to stay and get the treatment I need.’ And also speaking out,” Gomez said. “We know there is widespread abuse of migrant workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and many people, many workers fear speaking out because of reprisals against them where they can easily be fired, sent back to their home country, and not be able to come back to work in Canada again. Kerian has decided to be very public about her case. We know many workers who have not been able to do so because of fear.”

Gomez said they haven’t heard from the province regarding the decision on the IFHP application. The Halifax Examiner contacted the Department of Health and Wellness to ask if they planned on supporting Burnett or offering MSI to other migrant workers.

A department spokesperson didn’t answer our specific questions, saying they couldn’t speak to individual cases. Instead they sent a statement noting that employers decide insurance coverage. They added that while a migrant worker can receive treatment, they will be billed for the service.

‘It’s very unfair’

Gomez said they are in contact with other organizations across the province and across the Maritimes, as well as the Migrant Rights Network to fight this issue.

“Right now, we’re going to definitely be meeting with other organizations in Nova Scotia to see how we can continue to push forward to ensure MSI for all becomes a reality,” Gomez said.

Burnett called the last several months “a long fight and a hard process” and she said she’d like to see permanent changes.

“When you die, you don’t get a second chance to come back. I think they should move more urgently to the situation. I had sleepless nights. I cried at night. I cried in the day,” Burnett said. “There are times I speak about it and I’m okay and there are other times when I just break down. I don’t think anyone should have to go through this. And we are essential to Canada. We come here, we work, we pay taxes here. So, why is it we can’t access health care here? They should change the rules. It’s very unfair.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Why was there such a battle on this issue. If you bring in people to work they have to have medical coverage, especially in critical illness cases. It should be part of the deal.