Saudi medical trainees ordered out of Canada granted extension

Saudi Arabia has granted a three-week extension to a group of 1,000 medical trainees and fellows who were ordered to return home amid a diplomatic spat with Canada.

The extension, confirmed by HealthCareCAN, a national group that represents hospitals and health-care organizations, gives the Saudi trainees until Sept. 22 to leave their hospital posts in Canada. The previous deadline was Aug. 31.

The move gives Canadian hospitals a bit more time to adjust to the sudden move, the group says, and may also allow some medical students to write their Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada exams.

Paul-Émile Cloutier, president and CEO of HealthCareCAN, says the extension doesn’t solve the problem, but it does offer some reprieve.

“It relieves these students who were under a great deal of stress and had to get themselves ready to leave by the end of August. There’s an enormous sense of relief that they’ve gotten a few more weeks to prepare themselves to leave,” Cloutier told CTVNews.ca.

In all, more than 15,000 post-secondary students from Saudi Arabia were recalled earlier this month. So far there is no indication that any other students will be granted more time in Canada.

The extension was granted to all Saudi medical trainees and fellows working in Canadian hospitals, Cloutier said. Those granted the extension received letters confirming the news sometime in the last few days.

It’s unclear what led Saudi Arabia to grant the extension. But Cloutier says the Saudi trainees themselves have spoken out against the move, which abruptly changed their education plans halfway through the summer.

“I think they heard their own community that many of them would be affected,” Cloutier said.

As well, a number of healthcare groups, including HealthCareCAN, spoke with federal counterparts in hopes of finding a solution.

“And maybe, some of the discussions we had with the federal government, they were able to bring some flexibility with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Health-care facilities most affected by the move are research hospitals in large urban centres that offer specialty programs, Cloutier said. Among them are Hamilton Health Sciences, Toronto’s University Health Network, SickKids Hospital in Toronto and the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

Even with the extension, many hospitals are still scrambling to come up with a backup plan, Cloutier said.

“It’s not easy to turn around and find a plan that will not disrupt the delivery of health care for Canadians,” he said.

Saudi Arabia lashed out against Ottawa on Aug. 6 after a tweet, sent by an official government account, decried the arrests of women’s rights activists in the Middle Eastern Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia acted swiftly, immediately freezing “all new business” with Ottawa, expelling the Canadian ambassador, recalling all Saudi post-secondary students studying in Canada, and cancelling all state flights between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stood behind his government’s decision to speak out about human rights abuses overseas.

“We continue to engage diplomatically, but as I’ve said, Canada will always be very clear on standing up for human rights,” Trudeau said last week.

“We will make sure that message is clear in public and private. But of course we look to improve relations while remaining firm in our values.”

According to numbers posted by Global Affairs, Canada and Saudi Arabia’s bilateral trade relationship accounted for more than $4 billion in 2017.

The largest deal between the two countries is a massive $15-billion agreement to purchase light-armoured vehicles from a London, Ont.-based company. There has been no indication that the feud will impact the deal.

With files from The Canadian Press