Photo: The Canadian Press
Liberal MP Hedy Fry
Cathy Legere witnessed the conditions faced by elderly residents in long-term care facilities and the intense pressure personal care staff were under at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The retired infection control nurse volunteered her services at the Orchard Villa home where her stepfather, Nick, was staying, in April 2020 – and said she witnessed a system that was badly ‘broken’ before contract the virus themselves.
As she isolated herself at home, she was horrified to learn that her stepfather, Nick, had been left in a room for almost 24 hours with the corpse of a resident he had watched slowly succumb sick for two days. .
The horrific stories that emerged from long-term care facilities at the start of the pandemic, particularly those reported by Canadian military personnel who were brought in to help, prompted the Liberal government to promise in its 2020 Speech from the Throne that he would work on changes to the Criminal Code to “explicitly penalize those who neglect the elderly in their care”.
Almost two years later, the government has made no major move.
It makes Legere, who is a party to a major class action lawsuit against Ontario nursing homes, feel all the more cynical about seeing any accountability: “Is this something that’s going to do something, or is it just the liberals saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re gonna do this,’ and everybody’s gonna come back?
Liberal Hedy Fry, the longest-serving MP in the House of Commons, is trying to take matters into her own hands and propose changes that could provide a roadmap for the government’s approach.
She introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-295, in late June that would amend section 215 of the Criminal Code to specifically criminalize owners and managers of long-term care homes for failing to to provide the “necessities of life” to vulnerable adults.
It would also give judges the ability to prohibit anyone convicted or on probation for this offense from volunteering or working in an environment “that involves being responsible for or in a position of trust or authority over an adult.” vulnerable due to age, illness, mental disorder, disability or frailty.”
Fry said his intention was to prevent the failures of long-term care during the pandemic from happening again.
“COVID exposed many vulnerabilities that we smugly, as governments and as caregivers and as a doctor myself, have always thought to be cured. It revealed that there were holes in the net security,” she said in an interview. “The system was not up to the task.”
Fry said Justice Minister David Lametti ‘has no problem’ with the bill and said yes when asked if she thought the government was on board with the approach .
A Justice Department spokesperson would only say that officials are “exploring potential options for Criminal Code reform to better address elder abuse and neglect.”
Experts say the bill is a step in the right direction, but risks being a public relations exercise and failing to deliver meaningful change if the government ends up backing it in isolation.
The Criminal Code changes themselves appear to be “a very viable approach,” said Graham Webb, executive director of the Advocacy Center for the Elderly and formerly its longtime lawyer.
“I’m really not aware of a single charge ever being laid for the negligence of a resident in long-term care,” Webb said. “I think it’s important that the criminal justice system is able to respond when we see such egregious cases of institutional abuse and neglect of older adults.”
He added that the definitions around “managers” and “owners” of homes could be refined to ensure that those at the top who control the money and resources available to staff are held accountable for negligence, rather than individuals. line workers.
But Krista James, national director of the Canadian Center for Elder Law, said prosecutions under Section 215 are already rare and she is skeptical of the impact of changing it.
“Criminal law reform requires reform of the criminal law infrastructure to have an impact,” she said, explaining that police and prosecutors should be trained and that offenses and standards of proof should be widely promoted to make it work. “If only it was about changing a law.”
Asked if she thought the bill could have a chilling effect, James joked: “You would hope that people providing long-term care would want to provide good care for vulnerable older people living in their facilities, whether or not they are in jail if they haven’t.”
Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said there have been “no consequences” for the abuse and neglect that has been exposed during the pandemic, or for the needless deaths of residents due poor infection control and non-COVID-19 reasons like dehydration and starvation.
While provincial governments overseeing long-term care have a lot to do, Ottawa has a role to play in holding provinces accountable for better standards of care, Mehra said, by attaching more conditions to federal health transfers. .
That and finally following through on the promise to hold bad actors criminally accountable.
“I think we need to probe our conscience if the lives of older people aren’t worth an official government bill,” she said, “and real change with the teeth.”