The coronavirus has taken a terrible toll at one Newmarket long-term care home, Mackenzie Place, a short walk from where I live. 

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a colourful poster on the dining room window telling passers-by: 

“Heroes walk through these doors every day”.

Absolutely.

Containing the virus

The staff work valiantly to contain the virus but it spreads relentlessly. By May 8th Newmarket Today was reporting 11 deaths at the home. 78 residents and 23 staff had tested positive.

This is the biggest outbreak in York Region.

I find myself wondering why the virus cannot be contained. 

The interim guidance on how to control Covid-19, published by the Public Health Agency of Canada over one month ago, on 8th April, was reassuring. 

Belt and braces

To me, the guidance seemed like a real belt and braces job, spelling out the steps that should be taken to keep residents and staff safe.

However, I now learn from Jodi Hall, the Chair of the Canadian Association of Long-Term Care, that the guidance from Public Health Canada is “basically impossible” to follow in many care homes which have outdated facilities.

Many homes have “four-bed, hospital-like wards with residents separated only by a curtain”. In these circumstances, preventing cross infections is challenging.

Mackenzie Place is owned and operated by Revera, one of a number of private sector providers of long-term care. 

Four times more likely

Over the weekend, the Toronto Star reported that Covid-19 deaths in Ontario are far higher in for-profit nursing homes. Its analysis

“shows residents in the province’s for-profit facilities are four times more likely to become infected and die from the virus as those in municipally operated homes.”

If this is true it is deeply worrying and begs the fundamental question of whether the private sector should be in the business of long-term care at all.

Pat Armstrong, a Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at York University, believes long-term care should lie in the public sector. She gave her reasons to the CBC’s Michael Enright in a fascinating conversation on his Sunday Edition on 26 April. Meals and staffing are prime candidates for cost control. 

Professor Armstrong paints a picture of what long-term care can be like given imagination and resources. She points to examples overseas, in Scandinavia, where long-term care offers residents a fulfilling and stimulating life.

Questions and Answers

I hope these themes can be explored by the House of Commons Health Committee when it meets on Wednesday, 13 May 2020. It will be webcast from 4pm-7pm and Pat Armstrong and Judi Hall are amongst the witnesses.

Newmarket-Aurora MP, Tony Van Bynen, is a member of the Committee and I hope he will explore the public/private issue in the time he has available. 

But if this is outside the Committee's terms of reference for the current inquiry - and it may be - he may wish to focus on the guidance from Public Health Canada which is, apparently, in many settings impossible to follow.

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Update on 12 May 2020: From the Toronto Star: National Standards of Care Needed says Federal Minister. And Martin Reg Cohn argues that accountablity and responsibility matter more than ownership. Cohn writes:

"The Ford government decided last year to end comprehensive annual inspections, opting instead for a complaint-based model — as if seniors suffering from dementia, or without extended families, can truly benefit from the premier’s fetish for snitch lines or online web forms. There is no excuse for not regulating and inspecting comprehensively, annually and aggressively."

Update on 13 May 2020: The Province says it is taking steps to better protect residents and staff in long-term care homes.  And the Toronto Star calls for a public inquiry into the crisis in long-term care.

Update on 19 May 2020: Province announces independent inquiry into long-term care.

Update on 21 May 2020: From the Toronto Star: Long-term Care - Ontario needs the real deal.

During last October’s Federal Election campaign Tony Van Bynen, now MP for Newmarket-Aurora, made it explicitly clear he was in favour of a ban on handguns. 

On 20 April 2020, in the wake of the mass murders in Nova Scotia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Government would strengthen gun control legislation as soon as possible.

Semi-automatic handguns

Reports in the Toronto Star this morning tell us the RCMP have confirmed that the killer was carrying several semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles.

When the legislation comes before this minority Parliament Van Bynen’s vote will be crucially important – it carries the same weight as any other MP’s vote.

But, as a Liberal MP who believes in a nationwide ban on handguns, his voice could be particularly influential and persuasive. 

He honoured the victims of the massacre in Nova Scotia on social media. A vote to ban handguns nationwide would be a lasting tribute to their memory.

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My email/letter exchange with Tony Van Bynen MP and Bill Blair MP on handguns

By email and Canada Post: 29 April 2020

Good Morning Tony

Thank you for your reply of 26 April 2020 to my email of 26 January 2020. I am grateful you have taken the time to respond.

You tell me you have forwarded my 26 January email to the Minister, Bill Blair, and I have followed this up with my own email to him. It is pasted below for your information.

Mr Blair is, of course, in no position to speak for you on whether you support the Class Action against Smith and Wesson being brought by the victims of the Danforth mass shooting. Can I ask again if you support the class action?

Here is a link to the CBC’s reporting:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/danforth-shooting-class-action-lawsuit-smith-wesson-1.5398684

The story in this morning’s Toronto Star confirms that the Police now know that the mass murderer in the Nova Scotia killings was carrying several semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles. Here is the link:

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/04/28/nova-scotia-rcmp-to-provide-update-on-investigation-into-mass-killing.html

As this correspondence with you concerns matters of public policy between a constituent and an MP I am posting our exchanges on my website.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Gordon Prentice

___________________________________________________________________

By email and Canada Post: 29 April 2020

Dear Mr Blair

We are all shocked to the core by the terrible tragedy in Nova Scotia – the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. We hope the Government will do everything it can to minimise the possibility of such a brutal, cold-blooded slaughter ever happening again.

My MP, Tony Van Bynen, believes as I do that there should be a nationwide ban on handguns. He made his position clear during last year’s Federal Election campaign. 

I wrote to Mr Van Bynen on 26 January 2020 asking for his views on a Toronto Star editorial that day which described proposals to give municipalities powers to ban handguns on their patch as an “unworkable and ineffective idea” which defied logic.

Mr Van Bynen replied to my letter on 26 April 2020 after the full horror of the massacre in Nova Scotia became known. He wrote:   

Thank you for writing to me regarding banning handguns in Canada. The Prime Minister’s position with respect to gun control is clear. For ease of reference I am attaching a link to his most recent statements: https://www.thechronicleherald.ca/news/canada/trudeau-promises-swift-action-on-gun-control-in-light-of-nova-scotia-shooting-439870/

The matter is also reflected in Hon Bill Blair - Minister of Public Safety’s Mandate Letter and his approach is largely captured in the following article. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-ottawa-to-implement-gun-control-strategy-in-multistep-process-bill/  I will submit your email correspondence to Minister Blair.

Tony Van Bynen MP

Newmarket-Aurora

Although Mr Van Bynen did not make it explicitly clear, I am bound to assume that in forwarding my correspondence to you he is inviting you to address the points I raised with him concerning (a) the feasibility and workability of a partial handgun ban and (b) the questions I had asked him to table.

Are you in a position to comment on the point made in the Toronto Star editorial about the impracticability of a partial handgun ban? And would it be possible for you to answer the questions I asked Mr Van Bynen to table? 

Can I ask you to acknowledge receipt of this email and indicate if I can expect a substantive reply to the points I raise?

I am very grateful.

Yours sincerely

Gordon Prentice

__________________________________________________________________

From: Gordon Prentice <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>  
Sent: Monday, April 20, 2020 5:32:45 PM
To: Van Bynen, Tony - M.P. <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Subject: The Massacre in Nova Scotia

By email and by Canada Post

Good afternoon Tony

In the light of the terrible massacre in Nova Scotia and your Tweet #NovaScotiaStrong I am writing to ask you again what steps you are taking to advance a ban on handguns, a policy you favour.

I should also be grateful if you would address the points made in my letter of 26 January 2020.

Gordon Prentice

__________________________________________________________________

By email and by Canada Post 

Tony Van Bynen MP

House of Commons

Ottawa K1A 0A6

26 January 2020

Good afternoon Tony

Banning handguns

I am writing to you again because we share a common objective to see handguns banned in Canada.

This morning’s Toronto Star editorial calls for a ban on handguns and says the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to Bill Blair in December only mentions assault rifles.

“On handguns, it speaks only of working with provinces and territories “to give municipalities the ability to further restrict or ban handguns” — the position the Liberals campaigned on last year.

This is an unworkable and ineffective idea. The idea that individual cities can usefully impose bans on handguns defies logic…”

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2020/01/26/banning-assault-rifles-is-fine-but-handguns-are-the-problem.html

What are your thoughts on this?

At the bottom of page 4 of this morning’s Star there is a short piece about a fatal shooting last night in Scarborough – Bill Blair’s own patch. One man was shot in the chest and died and another was shot in the head and is in hospital with life threatening injuries. A woman was shot in the hand.

This kind of gun violence is becoming normalised with stories which would once have appeared on the front page being found deep inside the paper.

As Parliament returns this coming week after the Christmas break, would you (a) raise this issue of gun violence at the next Liberal caucus and (b) seek a meeting with Bill Blair to ask how he intends to respond to the plague of handgun violence. How will the plan to give individual cities the right to impose bans on handguns work in practice? 

I wrote to Bill Blair twice during the Government’s consultation on firearms.

I should also be grateful if you would table these written questions:

(1)          What estimate the Minister has made of the cost to Municipalities of (a) implementing and maintaining a local ban on handguns or (b) restricting access to handguns?

(2)          If the Minister will make it his policy to collect statistics on the number of people who have been left permanently disabled as a result of a handgun assault, specifying in each case the nature of the injury?

(3)          How many persons under the age of 18 have been (a) fatally shot and (b) wounded in each of the last 10 years by someone using a handgun?

On 16 December 2019 I wrote asking if you would support the class action lawsuit brought by victims of the Danforth shooting against gun maker Smith and Wesson. The story is set out here in the Globe and Mail:

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-toronto-danforth-shooting-victims-lawsuit-gun-maker-smith-wesson/

Can I ask when you are likely to be in a position to respond?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Your sincerely

Gordon Prentice

Danielle Kane, shot in the Danforth, left paralysed from the waist down. 

Update 29 April 2020: From the Globe and Mail: Canada set to ban assault-style weapons.

Update 1 May 2020: From the Globe and Mail: Trudeau announces ban on assault style guns. And will the rampage in Nova Scotia prove to be a pivotal moment? And from the Toronto Star: Much more must be done.

Update on 3 May 2020: From the Globe and mail: Trudeau's hurried assault weapon ban is a weak half measure

"Most puzzling of all is the government’s stance on handguns. It has no intention of banning them in Canada; at best, as Mr. Trudeau repeated on Friday, Ottawa will give municipalities the power to restrict or ban handguns within their own jurisdictions.

That is an odd choice, and an empty gesture. If a ban on military-style semi-automatics is an effective way to reduce the number of weapons in circulation and available for mass shootings, then surely a similar ban on handguns – which also have no legitimate civilian purpose, and which kill and wound more Canadians every year than any other firearm – would have a similar effect. Friday’s announcement accomplished two things. It banned a style of weapon that has no place outside of the military, but it also reminded people who care about gun control that the Liberals have been inconsistent and at times illogical in their approach to the issue."

Yesterday Doug Ford announced that 350,000 front-line workers battling against Covid-19 will be getting a $4 per hour increase in their wages for four months. The Premier described this as “pandemic pay” for “pandemic heroes”. 

“This increase will provide four dollars per hour worked on top of existing hourly wages, regardless of the qualified employee's hourly wage. In addition, employees working over 100 hours per month would receive lump sum payments of $250 per month for each of the next four months. This means that eligible employees working an average of 40 hours per week would receive $3,560 in additional compensation. 

Those eligible to receive the payment will be staff working in long-term care homes, retirement homes, emergency shelters, supportive housing, social services congregate care settings, corrections institutions and youth justice facilities, as well as those providing home and community care and some staff in hospitals.”

Those entitled to the wage boost include Personal Care Workers, nurses and care assistants.

Good News

This is good news – especially for those who earn the minimum wage. Last year’s budget kept the minimum wage at $14 an hour with Ford claiming a tax break would give low paid workers a better deal.

It didn’t

Ford’s Deputy, Christine Elliott, has never been in favour of the minimum wage.

She says there has to be a balance between the minimum wage and businesses being able to absorb the cost. 

Wage Restraint for the low paid

There always seems to be a good reason why low wages can’t be raised. But the coronavirus has changed all that – at least for the next four months.

It was all very different in November 2010, ten years ago, when the then Opposition Health and Long-Term Care Critic, Christine Elliott, excoriated the “McGuinty Liberals” for not freezing wages in long-term care homes. Then, as now, the Provincial Government was trying to rein in wage increases in the public sector. 

In September 2010, an arbitrator had awarded a one year, 2 per cent increase to most workers in Extendicare, Chartwell and other private for-profit care homes.

The care homes had “demanded” that a wage freeze apply to 17,000 nurses and other employees and Elliott took up the cudgel on their behalf. (Click "Read More" below.)

She warned MPPs:

Homes will have no choice but to lay off 1,300 nurses and seniors’ care providers if the Premier continues backtracking from his wage restraint plan.”

Groundhog Day 

In April 2019, not long after its election, the Ford Government was calling for a 

“voluntary agreement to wage outcomes lower than the current trend.”

By November 2019, the Government had legislated

“to cap public sector wage increases at an average of one per cent annually for the next three years.”

Where does this leave front-line workers after the pandemic subsides?

Are Ford’s “pandemic heroes” going to fall back to the end of the line again? 

From hero to zero in four months.

Or will we see a new settlement with terms and conditions that reflect their status as key workers on whom our most vulnerable depend?

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At the moment we all believe Personal Care Workers are worth their weight in gold. 

But what happens when this deadly pandemic passes?

Will it be back to business as usual or are we going to give Personal Support Workers (and others on the front-line) the support and the salaries they deserve for the critically important work they do? 

A ten-minute walk from where I live takes me to the Mackenzie Place Long-term Care Home on George Street where on Monday (20 April) an 87 year old woman became the fourth resident to die of Covid 19. Newmarket Today tells me 49 residents and 17 health-care workers have tested positive.  

Crisis in long term care

This crisis in long term care has been a long time in the making. And the wall-to-wall coverage in recent days has brutally exposed the sector’s shortcomings and failures that have tragically cost so many lives.

A report last week from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says Ontario needs to spend at least $58 million more a month on staffing to help save the lives of seniors in long-term care homes. True, the Province is taking new measures to protect residents but is it too little too late?

Personal Support Workers struggle to get by on low wages, often working in multiple care homes to make ends meet. Yet Directors of Care Homes can rake in millions of dollars.

Common-sense revolution

When Mike Harris was Premier of Ontario (1995-2002) and pushing through his “common-sense revolution”  he removed the minimum care standard in long-term care facilities. (Photo below.)

He also brought in the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act in 1996 (the Sunshine List) listing salaries over $100,000. This figure has never been uprated for inflation and every year more people are drawn into the net.

For the last 16 years Harris, now 75, has chaired the Board of Chartwell, Canada’s largest for-profit retirement home chain with over 200 retirement communities across four Provinces. 15% of its business is in Long Term Care. Chartwell is one of Canada’s largest employers of Personal Service Workers. 

I don’t know what the going rate is for Personal Service Workers at Chartwell. Their website is Delphic:

“Chartwell offers compensation programs to attract and retain a highly qualified and diverse workforce. These programs are consistent with our mission and business strategies and ensure employees feel valued and appreciated for their efforts.”

As Chair of Chartwell’s Board Harris gets an annual retainer of $110,000 and $2,200 per meeting. Harris attended 15 last year.

Deferred Units

Since 2008 Directors have been able to use their annual retainer and meeting fees to acquire “Deferred Units”. These are matched on a one-for-one basis by Chartwell, effectively doubling the holding.

The market value of Harris’s Deferred Units was $4,293,877 on 31 December 2019 but he has taken a big hit with the market value dropping to $2,674,016 on 30 March 2020. Harris also holds “Trust Units” which “represent an individual ownership interest in Chartwell”. The market value of these securities on 31 December 2019 was $2,762,069, dropping to $1,700,958 on 30 March 2020. 

All in all, the total value of his securities is now $4,374,973 down from $7,055,946 three months previously. (Click link at bottom of the blog to read more.) 

Being Chair of Chartwell is not Mike Harris’s day job. He is a senior business adviser at the law firm Fasken Martineau DeMoulin but admits no legal expertise.

Harris is also a member of the Board of Directors of Canaccord Genuity Group Inc and Colliers International Group Inc. He is Chair of Route 1 Inc.

Regulated

Part of Harris’s remuneration at Chartwell derives from its involvement in Long Term Care which is, of course, regulated by the Province which controls long term care fees and subsidizes long term care residents. They say it is an important part of their business.

But Chartwell warns its investors:

“There can be no assurance that the current level of such fees and subsidies will be continued or that such fees will increase commensurate with expenses. A reduction of such fees or subsidies could have an impact upon the value of our properties and our net income. 

Provincial governments have recently introduced legislation relating to long term care, retirement residences, rent control and employment standards, all of which impacts Chartwell’s operations.”

We wait to see how the Ford Government’s plans to reorganise Health and Social Care will be affected by the coronavirus and the horror stories coming out of long-term care homes. The pandemic has highlighted chronic underfunding in the sector. Will wages and benefits for Personal Support Workers get a much needed lift? What about long term care in the long term?

What lessons has Doug Ford learned?

And how will Mike Harris and the for-profit long term care providers like Chartwell respond?

Its AGM is on 14 May.

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Update on 19 May 2020: Province announces independent inquiry into long-term care.

Update on 2 June 2020 from the Toronto Star: Harris embodies nursing homes' checkered history.

Update on 27 June 2020: Martin Reg Cohn on the destructive legacy of Mike Harris

As I tap this out on Monday afternoon I learn that at least 19 people are dead in Nova Scotia, including the deranged gunman. 

We don’t know why the killer set out on this murderous rampage – the deadliest in Canadian history. Perhaps a suicide note will surface somewhere or maybe there will be clues on a hard drive. 

We may never know. 

Massacres will continue to happen

We can though predict with absolute certainty that these horrific massacres will continue until we ban the possession of handguns and assault weapons and tighten restrictions on all other firearms. 

But what are the chances of this happening when the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, Peter Mackay, was photographed in 2014 wearing a T shirt sporting the image of a maple leaf and an assault weapon with the words: “No compromise”?

Within a year of the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996 handguns were banned. Such was the public revulsion. Today in the UK anyone found in the unlawful possession of a handgun gets 5 years in prison. 

Thoughts and prayers

Thoughts and prayers have their place when the terrible slaughter is still raw and fresh in our minds. But as the memory fades – as it has with the Danforth massacre – we must remind ourselves why we should act quickly and decisively. 

I have now written on three occasions to my MP Tony Van Bynen asking him to let me know what action he is taking in Ottawa to bring about a ban on handguns.

He has chosen neither to acknowledge nor to reply.

You can read my latest letter to him by clicking the link below the Bill Blair flyer.  

I shall write again to ask what steps he will take to end this scourge of gun violence. 

Six months ago during the Federal election campaign Tony Van Bynen told us he wanted to see a ban on handguns. 

How long will we have to wait?

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Update on 21 April 2020: From the Toronto Star: Ottawa urged to ban "military style" weapons. And from the Globe and Mail: Death Toll Rises to 23.