They're both ministers and Ontario residents, but Chris Alexander and Deb Matthews don't have much else in common. He's Canada's immigration minister, while she handles health provincially. He's a Conservative, she's a Liberal. He's from Ajax-Pickering, a riding east of Toronto, while she's from London, to the west.
All that aside, federal ministers don't often pick fights with the provinces, regardless of political stripe. They err on the side of even-handed diplomacy with each province. And yet, here we are, with the two in a brewing standoff.
Mr. Alexander is firing back at Ontario's decision to fund health care for refugees whose cases Ottawa says are not legitimate. He took aim at Ontario in a press conference Wednesday, and Ms. Matthews was only too keen to fire back.
A day later, Mr. Alexander said it's not a fight he's backing down from.
"Ontario is wrong on this issue," the ex-ambassador told The Globe on Thursday. "Deb Matthews – her approach wastes taxpayers' money. It undermines our successful reforms. And it betrays genuine refugees. And we will continue to criticize if if they continue down this road. And I'm certainly not afraid of doing that, because this is a federal field of responsibility which they have chosen to enter for absolutely the wrong reasons."
The fight began in late 2012 when Ottawa introduce immigration changes. Among them was designating "safe" countries that Canada doesn't expect many refugee cases from, in a bid aimed at cracking down on bogus cases. Would-be refugees from the designated countries now get quicker hearings. If their claims are actually legitimate, they enter the normal asylum process. If the claims are illegitimate, they're deported more quickly. Ottawa says the goal is to get rid of bogus cases that clog up the system.
The crux of the Matthews-Alexander skirmish hinges on whether those suspected bogus claimants from designated countries get health care. Mr. Alexander says they should only get it once their case is accepted – essentially, once Canada agrees they're a refugee. But Ms. Matthews announced last month Ontario would spend $20-million annually to give care to all claimants, even failed ones from "safe" countries, until their deportation date.
The two met over the issue last month. After that, "I thought he had a deeper understanding of the impact on our hospitals," Ms. Matthews said on Wednesday, after Mr. Alexander spoke out against her move. "He is a former diplomat. He understands this issue more than others – or would be expected to understand this issue. And I'm just terribly disappointed he would choose to play politics. The fact is, [the refugee claimants] are in this country. It is the federal government's responsibility to manage the refugee system. … Nobody's going to turn away a woman who is delivering a baby."
The two are in a turf war. on Thursday, Mr. Alexander suggested Ms. Matthews has no place overruling what is ultimately an immigration decision – federal jurisdiction – by providing health care, a provincial responsibility.
"We [in the federal government] have respected their political decisions including in health care, where we've given them 6 per cent [funding] escalators. We don't always agree with all of it, but we recognize that's provincial jurisdiction. This is a federal jurisdiction," he said, adding Ontario is largely throwing money at hospital care for bogus claimants.
"You're not a refugee if you've self-selected, if you've just woken up one day and decided you're persecuted," he said, adding many cases have ties to organized crime. "So we've taken that abuse out of the system for the most part so we can concentrate on the refugees we really, really care about."
Ms. Matthews, however, continues to urge Mr. Alexander to meet with local health leaders, who she says are not meant to be the ones asked to turn away claimants from a clinic. "I just don't think it's fair to them to make them the administrators of that," she said.