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Border Inaccessible to Disabled

Despite lifting a blanket ban on disabled immigrants, it's easier to get a dog past the Canadian Border Services Agency than a disabled child

Paul and Barbara-Anne Chapman say even a dog has more rights than their daughter.

When the British couple arrived at Halifax airport July 12, their Labrador retriever sailed through customs. But an official with the Canada Border Services Agency demanded to know why they were bringing their seven-year-old daughter, Lucy, into the country.

"Why shouldn't I bring her to this country?" Paul Chapman asked.

He says the border guard replied that his daughter is disabled and is banned for life from entering Canada. It's a scenario that should bother anyone who cares about human rights. Canadian law allows officials to reject immigrants with disabilities on the grounds they might "cause excessive demand on health or social services."

Laurie Beachell, National Coordinator with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, says such discrimination happens all the time. "We learn of families who wish to immigrate," Beachell says, "but a parent or child has a disability, and the family is denied." Beachell adds that the law is too narrow. "All it does is look at what is the cost to Canada and does nothing to look at the potential benefit. Under this law, we'd probably deny Stephen Hawking."

Beachell was referring to the brilliant British physicist who is renowned for his contributions to astronomy, in spite of (having) extreme paralysis caused by Lou Gehrig's disease.

In light of the Chapman case, Beachell is again calling on the federal government to change a law "that continues to devalue the lives of people with disabilities." In the meantime, the Chapmans were forced to leave Canada last week.

Beachell describes their situation as "bizarre" because the law allowing rejection of disabled immigrants does not normally apply to temporary visitors. The Chapmans were planning to holiday here--their third such visit in two years. The decision to bar the family shows that border guards have way too much power to {mess} with people's lives, if they see something in their files they regard as suspicious.

In 2005, the Chapmans had applied to come to Canada while Paul studied for four years at an Ontario university. They were denied entry because their daughter, Lucy, has a rare genetic disorder. She's unable to speak and has the mental capacity of a three-year-old, but is otherwise healthy. Then, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling forced the federal government to lift its blanket ban on disabled immigrants and consider each case individually.

The Chapmans noticed the change and applied to become permanent residents under Nova Scotia's immigrant nominee program. Their application was based on their experience and skills as business owners in Britain. They planned to invest more than half a million dollars here and hire 25 people to run a family entertainment centre at Dartmouth Crossing. After a two-year review, Nova Scotia officials OK'd their application and sent it to Ottawa for routine medical and security checks.

The Chapmans decided to come to Nova Scotia on holiday, staying in a house they bought last summer near Miller Lake. When their visas finally came through, they planned to cross into the United States, then return to Canada as required under immigration rules. But Chapman says a border guard at Halifax airport arbitrarily decided that Lucy was under a lifetime ban from entering Canada because the family had been rejected in 2005. A spokesperson for the Border Services Agency wouldn't comment on the Chapman case specifically, but suggested officials get suspicious when temporary visitors arrive with one-way airline tickets.

As a result, the Chapmans are back in Britain awaiting a final decision on their immigration application. There may yet be a happy ending, but what happened to them at Halifax airport last month focuses renewed attention on Canada's blatant discrimination against would-be immigrants with disabilities.

"What shocks me is I've never come across such open discrimination before," says Barbara-Anne Chapman. "My dog got in with no problem. An animal has more rights than my daughter."

Reprinted from the Coast, Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 7, 2008.

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