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Conservatives aren’t always anti-statists, especially when it comes to autism funding

Canadian Conservatives (like me) believe the state interferes far too much in our daily lives. That’s why we’ve historically supported concepts like small government, low taxes and more individual rights and freedoms.

This doesn’t mean Conservatives are anti-statists. Most of us recognize the government still has a role to play in society, including the health and well-being of its citizens. If it fails in this regard, we must all shoulder the blame.

I was recently reminded of an older example of massive government failure related to autism. It remains as mind-boggling now as it did then.

This is the story of Jon and Karissa Warkentin. They had moved from Colorado to the tiny community of Waterhen, Manitoba (pop. 169) with their four children in 2013. They purchased the Harvest Lodge, a local hunting and fishing business, with the intention of living in Canada and running it as a profit-making venture. They reportedly invested $600,000 of their own money, and paid taxes and other fees “in excess of $20,000.” They applied for permanent residency in Nov. 2016. 

The Warkentins appeared to be a pleasant, hard-working family. This assessment was confirmed by Waterhen Mayor Larry Chartrand. He told the Winnipeg Free Press on July 25, 2017, “They are well-liked, friendly members of our community. They are always willing to help out.”

Yet, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada initially turned down the Warkentin family’s application in July 2017. Why? According to the rejection letter, their six-year-old daughter, Karalynn, could “reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services.”

Karalynn, who was previously diagnosed with epilepsy, also had symptoms related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and global developmental delay, which is commonly associated with autism. Even though she hadn’t experienced a seizure in over two years, Ottawa’s policy was still one of expressed concern. Her annual costs for medical treatment would have been well above Canada’s “excessive demand” per person for publicly funded services, which was then limited to $6,655 a year. 

Our country’s supposedly open immigration system wasn’t all that open when it came to applicants with autism and other serious ailments. This poor family, who were clearly making a real contribution to Waterhen, was caught in the crossfire. They could have been forced to abandon their dream and leave the country.

The situation was finally rectified on Dec. 5, 2017, and the Warkentin family was allowed to become permanent residents. It took a 500-page application to determine Karalynn’s case wasn’t as severe “as they had feared,” Jon Warkentin told the CBC. And, one assumes, a fair amount of media attention and bad press for Ottawa to change hearts and minds. 

Karissa Warkentin basically confirmed as much to Canadian Mennonite Magazine on Jan. 24. 2018. “We had almost a thousand signatures on an online petition,” she said. “It was 95 pages printed out front and back of comments and signatures from people all over Canada and the United States.”

Naturally, this family wasn’t going to point fingers. “We don’t know, we can only, you know, kind of guess at what changed it,” Jon Warkentin said to CBC. “While we’re very happy with the decision for our family today, (our hope is) that they’ll take a really hard look at it…and other families won’t have to go through what we’ve gone through. That’s our hope.”

Their story frustrated me in a personal way. Why? I have my own story. It’s only been told a few times, but it deserves an additional mention.

My wife and I noticed our son, Andrew, wasn’t developing at a normal rate in 2009. We did some tests and discovered he had a duplicate in Chromosome 7, which was related to a severe delay in speech. He was initially placed, quickly removed, and placed again on the autism spectrum with a moderate diagnosis.

Andrew has received applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy for years. He’s also had a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, academic tutors and a full-time aid for school, among other things. The intensive treatments have worked well. He continues to grow, develop and improve each year.

Autism Canada noted in a Mar. 29, 2018 press release, “1 in 66 Canadian children and youth ages five to 17 are on the autism spectrum…based on analysis of 2015 data supplied by six provinces and one territory.” These findings were taken from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder prevalence rates. Moreover, as Autism Canada’s Executive Director Laurie Mawlam pointed out, “1 in 66, the number released in the PHAC report, reflects what we’re witnessing in the autism community – that the prevalence of autism is on the rise.”

That’s not encouraging to hear.

My wife and I have paid for almost everything with private money. Our annual costs are more than ten times the minuscule “excessive demand” national figure. We’re lucky that we can handle it. Others haven’t been nearly so fortunate. There have been heartbreaking stories about families who sold their homes, cars and other worldly possessions to take care of their autistic children. 

That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not acceptable.

More taxpayer dollars need to be prudently allocated to autism, including therapeutic treatment, scientific research and community resources. Canada obviously can’t pay every nickel for every family – there are many other expenses that need to be earmarked in the day-to-day operations of government – but there’s no reason we can’t do more. Eliminating meaningless social programs designed to score political points would be a good place to start, and there’s plenty that could be done on this front. 

Conservatives should want to help – and, in most cases, do. While autism isn’t a national epidemic, the number of recognized cases is growing each year. If we want to build a better society, here’s our chance to do it in a non-ideological, fiscally responsible manner. 

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


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