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Arthur: Nothing less than transparency and accountability in long-term care

Ian Arthur, Member of Provincial Parliament for Kingston and the Islands. Submitted photo.

The following is a submitted Op/Ed piece. The views and opinions expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

On June 2nd, I stood up in the Legislature and asked the Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton if she would commit to a judicial inquiry into the state of long-term care (LTC) facilities in Ontario. She responded, vaguely, that there would be an “opportunity” for public input: that there would be a report from an “independent commission.” However that is not the same as having a public inquiry. There is an important distinction.

A public or judicial inquiry is independent from the legislature, and has legally-enshrined powers from the Public Inquiries Act of 2009. It is set up by a commission through the Lieutenant Governor’s office and can compel testimony and execute search warrants. Critically, it is public and transparent. The government’s “independent” commission is none of these things.

Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton want to move forward with this “independent” commission. But it lacks the transparency of a true public inquiry. A commission may allow for public input, but it is also allowed to proceed behind closed doors – this opens up the ability for redactions, for influence from insiders from a government with too-close connections to for-profit long-term care corporations. It undermines the possibility of truly transparent effort, when this is likely the Province’s one opportunity to set us on the right path.

Therefore, any inquiry must be a judicial, public, find-and-fix inquiry that will allow us to examine adequately how we got to where we are. Any commission where this government can vet the findings before making them public is not good enough. This is even more important with the revelation that Doug Ford’s government received two proposals from Minister Fullerton to increase funding for long-term care homes before the pandemic devastated nursing homes, and rejected both.

The state of  long-term care in Ontario has been dire for a generation. This is an issue that began when Mike Harris was Premier and has continued on until now, through successive governments, successive parties. The tragedy was built by successive governments, slowly, and with one small decision after another.

The Canadian Forces’ report on five long-term care facilities, which appeared in May, opened people’s eyes to systemic neglect, failure to plan, lack of staffing, shortages of Personal Protective Equipment, and conditions that we, as Canadians, should be ashamed of. These failures created the conditions that allowed COVID-19 to run rampant through the system. Tragically, the report was no surprise to those who have worked in the for-profit long-term care industry or who have family in those facilities.

For those who are skeptical about LTC insider influence on the Ford government, for-profit organizations are moving quickly to ensure access to the Progressive Conservative Government. There are at least five former Ford government staffers that are suddenly working as lobbyists and/or communications specialists for private long-term care providers throughout Ontario. Former Premier Mike Harris is currently the chair of the board of directors for Chartwell Retirement Residences. While these for-profit long-term care companies should be given the opportunity to testify like all Ontarians, we need to ensure they do not have undue influence on the final report. Right now, they are setting themselves up for just that.

Transparency is essential, precisely because it keeps the partisanship and blame games out of the report. A Ford Government that pins all the problems on previous Liberal governments will be of little solace to those who have lost loved ones.  And it will not allow us to build a better future for the industry that is safe, kind, and stable through successive future governments.

We cannot keep kicking this problem down the road. And we cannot say that this is solely the fault of those who have traveled before us. We are at a key fork in the road and what we do now is crucial. It needs to be public; it needs to be transparent; and it needs to be done right. This opportunity to openly assess our long-term care system, to gather public input, to openly examine systemic problems is vital. This problem is all of ours – our parents and grand-parents, and eventually younger generations, all face this. We need a public judicial commission now.

MPP Ian Arthur, Kingston and the Islands

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