College Quarterly
Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2

Unequal treatment of international students in Canada: Handling the case of health insurance coverage

By Sylvia Reitmanova


Several recent studies point out that international students at campuses around the world experience discrimination and isolation. Current Canadian health insurance policies illustrate that systemic discrimination of international students in Canada raises very little interest among post-secondary school administrators, health authorities, and the general public. If Canadian post-secondary institutions intend to create truly international campuses, they need to address discrimination against their international student population by becoming more active in promoting justice and equality for all persons involved in an educational setting.

The exclusion of international students from Canadian medicare: Who cares?

In June 2007, after two years of lobbying by the local branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) extended provincial universal medical care plan (MCP) to all eligible international students undertaking post-secondary studies in the province (Government of NL, 2007). This new policy sparked an emotional response among native residents. A major provincial newspaper wrote that some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians felt “insulted that people who suffer from illness and disability in this province weren't taken care of before MCP coverage was extended to international students” and asked why the province could not “beef up health care for local residents before giving it to international students” (Morrissey, 2007, p.A4). The provincial government justified its decision as an effective strategy for increasing the enrolment of international students (thereby generating income revenues) and for retaining these students upon graduation (Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2007).

Little attention was given to the fact that the government did only what it was required to do by Canadian law (CUPE, 2008; Picard, 2008; Reitmanova, 2008). The Canada Health Act establishes that all Canadian residents are entitled to free access to medical care during the period of time they reside in Canada (Government of Canada, 1985; Health Canada, 2007). However, international students in NL had been denied this entitlement because health authorities did not regard them as residents (Government of NL, 1996). Although international students are clearly defined by Canadian immigration legislation as Canadian residents for the time period during which their study permit is valid and, by that definition, accorded all the legal rights and duties of any Canadian resident (Government of Canada, 2001), yet, in NL – until June 2007 – international students had been considered residents only for the purpose of paying annual income taxes and contributing to the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance. As a consequence, their taxes were used for the operation of healthcare services that they were not able to access.

Students’ concerns about this non-uniform application of Canadian legislation that resulted in discrimination against international students were brought to the attention of several stakeholders: Health Canada, local health insurance administrators, immigration authorities, legal aid, and senior administrators at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Health Canada and local health insurance administrators insisted that international students were not Canadian residents despite the fact that Canadian immigration legislation clearly states otherwise. For instance, Health Canada responded that provinces may provide health insurance to international students on their own terms and conditions because the status of these students in Canada is not certain or has not been determined (Gibson, personal communication). When further arguments were advanced providing legislative evidence of the students’ status as Canadian residents, Health Canada chose not to respond.

Similarly, local health insurance administrators refused to acknowledge the students’ residential status as defined by immigration law. The director of the MCP office expressed the view that international students are not Canadian residents; they are simply foreign students (MCP, personal communication). In addition, health insurance administrators did not answer the question about the discrepancy in defining international students as residents for income tax purposes.

Immigration authorities confirmed that for the time period indicated by their valid student study permits, international students and their dependants are officially considered lawful Canadian residents and thus entitled to all legal rights and duties of Canadian residents (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, personal communication). Nevertheless, immigration officials refused to comment on the issue of unequal application of this legislation in health insurance eligibility, as they thought that this matter did not come under their jurisdiction but under the jurisdiction of health authorities.

Students at MUN also consulted a lawyer contracted by the Graduate Students’ Union to provide students with legal counseling. However, no legal aid was offered to them. Instead, they were advised to write letters to the Minister of Health and the local office of the National Democratic Party in order to lobby for a political gesture (Pittman, personal communication). Although the provincial Office of Child and Youth Advocate pursued the investigation on behalf of children of international students, it ceased the inquiry as soon as the health insurance coverage was extended to international students in the province.

University administrators also responded very slowly to the students’ concerns. According to Jessica Magalios, chairperson of the provincial CFS, MUN’s administration was not interested in supporting the international students’ lobby efforts and decided to help only “when the government made it clear that they would be introducing international student insurance policy in their highly anticipated immigration policy” (Hyslop, 2007, p.5). Similarly, when the administration was informed about the possibility of a violation of students’ rights, they did not offer students any legal assistance. Instead, the students were advised to vet their findings through the accepted academic processes of presentations and publications in order to seek appraisal from policy makers and experts about the issue and to serve as a forum for needed discussion (Walker, personal communication). The university stated that its role in this matter did not include commencing legal action against the government nor acting as an agent for students in such activities (Neville, personal communication).

MUN administration was informed that according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2006), there are about 86,000 international students enrolled at post-secondary institutions in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, PEI, Yukon and Nunavut—six provinces and territories that do not currently recognize international students’ right to free access to healthcare. However, MUN administrators did not feel that it is their role to champion students’ rights across Canada.


Taking into account the lack of support that international students in NL encountered at their Alma Mater as well as outside the campus, it is difficult to advise international students elsewhere in Canada where to seek help. Although a recent survey by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada indicated that the majority of post-secondary institutions are committed to building “an internationalized campus” (Tamburri, 2007), it seems that the vision for such an environment is a narrow one, focused more on increasing the number of international students and organizing annual international food and craft fairs rather than on safeguarding students’ rights.

In fact, several recent studies point out that international students at campuses around the world (including Canada’s) experience discrimination and isolation (CFS, 2007; Lopez and Poyrazli, 2007; Bonazzo and Wong, 2007; Lee, 2006; Scott, 2005; Greer and Hinchcliff-Pelias, 2004; Anderson, 2004). Recommendations have been made to improve the status quo by establishing liaisons for student services such as housing, healthcare, childcare, employment, financial aid, immigration and academics (Laboy Gonzalez, 2006). Moreover, the importance of staff competency in cross-cultural communication was recognized (Tamburri, 2007; Greer and Hinchcliff-Pelias, 2004).

While these new initiatives to improve services for international students are being slowly implemented at Canadian post-secondary institutions (Tamburri, 2007), it is obvious that school administrators do not feel responsible for addressing the systemic issues of discrimination faced by international students. Because school administrators in NL displayed so little interest in rectifying the issue of health insurance coverage for international students, and since health authorities lacked the will to be educated about immigration legislation, and since the general public expressed anger after health coverage had been introduced, one can assume that international students in those six provinces and territories that do not insure them will be left with nobody to turn to.

Some institutes of higher education maintain that their mission is to “contribute to the civilization of the future” (California State University Fullerton, 1996), rather than simply pursuing learning for the sake of expanding the frontiers of our knowledge (Hamlyn, 1996). However, this ambitious objective can be achieved only when the principles of justice and equality in educational settings are protected.


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Sylvia Reitmanova is a PhD student in community health at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds an MSc in medicine from Memorial University, a medical degree from Comenius University and a diploma in early childhood education from Algonquin College. Her research interests include health and social needs and inequalities of immigrants and refugees in Canada. She can be contacted at


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