Former P.E.I. student detained, faces deportation for accessing mental health care

·8 min read
Halifax lawyer Lee Cohen says his client should not have been removed from this hospital, where he was being treated for mental health issues. (CBC - image credit)
Halifax lawyer Lee Cohen says his client should not have been removed from this hospital, where he was being treated for mental health issues. (CBC - image credit)

A 27-year-old man who's been living on P.E.I. as a foreign student has been detained and is awaiting a decision on whether he'll be allowed to remain in Canada.

Mehdi Oussama Belhadj Hassine was born in Saudi Arabia. He was detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on Aug. 13 after spending weeks in the Hillsborough Hospital seeking help for his mental health.

Belhadj's legal counsel, Halifax lawyer Lee Cohen, is authorized to speak on his client's behalf. Cohen said he's "extremely disturbed" by this case.

"Something has gone terribly wrong here. A young man in need of mental health care accesses it and because he has accessed it, now he's on the path to being removed from Canada," Cohen said.

"The hospital from which Medhi was seeking treatment had communicated his situation to the Canada Border Services Agency."

Problem tied to lack of status

Immigration officials have now accused Belhadj of placing excessive demand on health or social services in Canada,

Excessive demand is defined as either of the following, according to the Immigration Canada website:

  • A demand on health services or social services for which the anticipated costs would likely exceed average Canadian per-capita health services and social services costs over a period of 5 consecutive years immediately following the most recent medical examination required under paragraph A16(2)(b) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), unless there is evidence that significant costs are likely to be incurred beyond that period, in which case the period is no more than 10 consecutive years.

  • A demand on health services or social services that would add to existing waiting lists and would increase the rate of mortality and morbidity in Canada as a result of an inability to provide timely services to Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Because Belhadj is without status in Canada at the moment, he is without health coverage and cannot afford to purchase a health plan or pay the bills from staying at the Hillsborough Hospital. He was detained after he had signed a consent form at the Hillsborough Hospital that allowed the CBSA to access and review his medical records.

"Those are the very medical records that the Canada Border Services Agency is using to mount a case against Medhi, to have him removed from Canada," said Cohen.

"That's not what a hospital is for. That's not what the mental health-care system is about. And yet, in this particular case, that's exactly what is happening here."

Detention review hearing held Aug. 23

During a Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) detention review conducted by phone on Monday afternoon, as a CBC reporter listened, Belhadj questioned why he had been detained and asked to be released.

Speaking on the call were Belhadj; Cohen, as his legal counsel; Halifax Refugee Clinic's Julie Chamagne, as Belhadj's personal representative; and members of the federal detention review board.

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

Participants on the call were told that Belhadj had been living in P.E.I. for around a decade after coming here as a student. He renewed his status regularly until his status became invalid on April 1, 2020.

The review board said he has not filed for renewal or extension since then, and Belhadj has been without status in Canada ever since. However, Cohen said Belhadj filed an application to do post-graduate work in Dec. 2020 and is currently waiting approval on that.

In addition, Cohen said COVID-19 greatly slowed immigration services in Canada. Because of federal office shutdowns — and a growing backlog of applications from people seeking status — Belhadj and others are facing a growing backlog at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Consent order questioned

Cohen argues that it's not necessary to have Belhadj detained any longer.

During the detention review, reading from a letter from a Hillsborough Hospital physician, Cohen said Belhadj suffers from paranoia, disorganized thoughts and schizophrenia, and has episodes of psychosis.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

The lawyer argued that because of this, his client was "not in a competent state" and the hospital administration should not have asked him to sign a consent order to have CBSA access and review his medical records.

Cohen said he met with Belhadj in person at the Provincial Correctional Centre in Miltonvale, P.E.I. — where he is being detained — and asked him if he'd willingly signed a consent order.

"He had no recollection of signing it," Cohen said. "When I explained to him what a consent order was and what the ramifications of his consent order were, he said [that] had he known what it was, he would never had signed it."

Talks underway for transfer

At this time, the CBSA is in talks to have the man transferred from Prince Edward Island to an immigration detainee holding centre in Laval, Que.

Cohen argued against this, saying all of Belhadj's supports and friends are on the Island, and a transfer to Quebec would be even worse for his mental health.

He said being incarcerated is hard enough on Belhadj's mental health; moving him to the Montreal area would be "beyond reasonable." He wants his client to be released from custody to await further hearings.

Federal officials say Belhadj must stay detained because he is considered a flight risk. But Cohen said Belhadj has no criminality in his past and has shown compliance in every way to date.

"There's no evidence on the record that he won't show up," Cohen said during the phone hearing.

Decision to continue detention upheld

Cohen said he is working with Belhadj's network of friends and the Halifax Refugee Clinic to arrange counselling and therapy, raise funds to support him post-release, and seek a place for him to live.

However, at the time of the Aug. 23 detention hearing, they did not have a thorough and detailed support plan ready to present to the review board.

That proved to be a key factor as the decision to keep Belhadj detained was upheld.

The conclusion is clear: If you have a need for mental health care on Prince Edward Island..., you better think very carefully before you access it if you don't want to be thrust into a very onerous and very stressful deportation process. — Lee Cohen

The review board agreed with Cohen that Belhadj was in a "vulnerable" situation due to his mental health status. It also said the ministry has demonstrated grounds for its flight risk categorization, given that Belhadj has not renewed or extended his status in Canada since April 2020.

As well, the board members said they "cannot in good conscience" release Belhadj without a place to stay and a detailed, structured support plan so that he doesn't relapse and have further issues.

Reflecting on the case so far, Cohen said he's troubled by what has transpired. He believes this case sends a warning to newcomers about mental health care in the country.

"If my speculation is correct… the conclusion is clear: If you have a need for mental health care on Prince Edward Island, according to what happened to my client, you better think very carefully before you access it if you don't want to be thrust into a very onerous and very stressful deportation process."

BIPOC USHR issues warning

On Friday, Aug. 20, the P.E.I.-based advocacy group BIPOC USHR (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour United for Strength, Home, Relationship) posted on Facebook about Belhadj's experience.

They called it a "warning" to BIPOC communities regarding mental health care access on the Island, particularly for those whose status in Canada is "not current or is in transition" and who are unable to pay for health care services.

"Racialized people experiencing mental health crises are often criminalized," the incoming executive director of BIPOC USHER, Sobia Ali-Faisal, said in an email to CBC News:

"That is why so many wellness checks on Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour end up in the person being killed by police — their vulnerability and inability to make decisions are not recognized. We are very concerned this may have happened here.

"The fact that Canada banishes people from the country based on mental illness and vulnerability is unjust and appalling.

"Had BIPOC USHR known about the student's mounting bill we would have immediately conducted a fundraiser to help pay his bill. The hospital did not inform us. We did not know this could be a basis for deportation."

Health PEI considers reviewing services

Health P.E.I. acting CEO Dr. Michael Gardam issued a statement to CBC News about the case on Tuesday after meeting with the province's Mental Health and Addictions Services.

"It is clear after that conversation that this individual was in the driver's seat regarding their care and life choices, and that any contact with external agencies was done with their consent," the statement said.

Craig Chivers/CBC
Craig Chivers/CBC

Yet the statement went on: "It is important to review what services we provide to non-Canadian residents who do not have health insurance. We do not deny emergency care or emergency admissions. We do not discharge individuals prematurely from our facilities just because they cannot pay their hospital bills…

The image of a person of colour leaving a healthcare facility to go into the custody with CBSA is alarming for marginalized and racialized communities. - Statement from Dr. Michael Gardam

"The image of a person of colour leaving a healthcare facility to go into the custody with CBSA is alarming for marginalized and racialized communities.

"Even though in this particular case Health PEI did not do anything inappropriate or against the wishes of the patient, the perception that is being shared in social media deters individuals from seeking care and is detrimental to the relationship between individuals and the healthcare system."

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