Saudi Medical Trainees Allowed to Stay in Canada for Now

More than 1,000 medical trainees from Saudi Arabia have been informed that they will be able to stay in their Canadian positions for a little while longer.

1,053 Saudi Arabian medical residents and fellows received an email from the Saudi Ministry of Education late Monday afternoon stating that they would be “allowed to continue in their present training programs until such time as an alternative assignment could be arranged.” The Kingdom initially instructed the medical trainees to leave Canada by August 31st. However, last week, the deadline was extended to September 22nd. This news was a welcomed relief to the teaching hospitals and universities that have come to rely on these individuals.

These forced departures are a direct response to a diplomatic altercation between Canada and Saudi Arabia that erupted earlier this month as a result of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calling for 

the release of jailed Saudi women’s rights activists. The state of the conflict has continued to escalate with the Saudi government taking aggressive measures including recalling all students – including medical students and residents – back to The Kingdom. Dr. Andrew Padmos, chief executive of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, said on Tuesday that while a tense and fearful mood remains among the medical trainees, the news of their reprieve brought a sense of relief for everyone. “The human cost and the chaos caused by their abrupt recall to Saudi Arabia was really mounting and most distressing to everybody concerned,” stating that “13 or 14” of Canada’s 17 medical schools as well as their associated teaching hospitals employ Saudi trainees. The remission for medical students and staff, however, does not apply to the 8,000 or more Saudi university students enrolled in other programs across Canada who are no longer permitted to continue their studies at Canadian institutions.

Though the email claims that Saudi medical graduates are only to stay in Canada until alternative arrangements are accessible, Paul-Emile Cloutier, president and CEO of HealthCareCAN – which represents hospitals across Canada – claims that many of them will likely be able to complete their training here. On Tuesday, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau stated in a letter to Canadian deans of medicine that those who had already left the country “may, at their option, return to their programs and resume their training in Canada.” The development comes as good news for graduates and Canadian hospitals alike, ordering the trainees to vacate the country would have jeopardized their potential future careers and strong-armed hospitals into seeking alternate methods to fill the spaces left as a result of the multitude of sudden departures.  

For decades, Canadian and Saudi governments have had an arrangement in which medical residents and fellows can train and get certified in their field in Canada. Saudi Arabia accounts for 95 percent of the international trainees in Canada with the Kingdom paying $100,000 a year for each medical trainee as well as covering the cost of their salaries. Alex Munter, CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says that this incident goes to show that Canada relies too heavily on money from foreign doctors-

in-training. “The Canadian health-care system should not depend on foreign government funding.” Both Munter and Cloutier aagree that health-care organizations, governments, and universities need to come up with different strategies to ensure that future disruptions similar to these do not directly affect patient care.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada stated that they “value the contributions these medical students and residents make to the Canadian health system and will always welcome them here” going on to say that they “are pleased that medical residents across the country will be able to complete their training here in Canada.” Although Prime Minister Trudeau claims that Canada and Saudi Arabia are maintaining a diplomatic dialogue, he is standing strong with Foreign Affairs and continues to voice concerns surrounding human rights and detaining activists. “We have expressed our concern with the sentence handed down by Saudi Arabia, our concern for defending human rights and our shared values all around the world.” The Kingdom has been criticized over the years for its controversial treatment of women with the ban on female drivers being lifted only in June of this year. Currently, five women’s rights activists are being imprisoned with one woman, thought to be the first campaigner in the country, facing possible execution. She would be the first female human rights activist to face capital punishment.     

It is an unfortunate reality that the price of conflicts between governments is paid, more often than not, by those who are in no way, shape, or form, directly involved in the dispute. Pursuing a career in medicine is a noble and selfless endeavour. Those who choose to dedicate their lives to protecting and maintaining the health and wellness of others should be celebrated and commended, not punished by having their studies hindered.

All we can hope is that these governments solve this dispute quickly before it comes at the cost of the careers of fantastic doctors and, perhaps more importantly, the patients in their care.