TORONTO — Grieving and worried families of long-term care residents gathered outside Queen’s Park Tuesday to rally against expected Ford government changes to lawsuit rules and health care.
“Throughout all of it, our government has not been listening to us, the families,” Cathy Parkes, whose father Paul died with COVID-19 at a Pickering, Ont. nursing home, told the demonstration.
“And now we find that our premier’s considering helping for-profit long-term care home owners; he’s considering changing the rules and denying us our rights. It’s unacceptable. It seems our government forgets that it serves the will of the people.”
Premier Doug Ford said last week that he might grant some type of immunity from lawsuits for organizations and people that unknowingly spread COVID-19. Supporters of the idea say it would protect organizations, including long-term care providers, that were acting in good faith in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.
Ford promised at the time “bad actors” who were negligent will still be held accountable.
“Who gets to decide who the bad actors are? That’s the problem,” Parkes said Tuesday.
Parkes is suing the home where her father lived, Orchard Villa, and the company that operates it, Southbridge Care Homes, for $1 million. The suit alleges that her father’s death was a direct result of the home’s negligence and its failure to live up to its duty to residents.
Orchard Villa’s executive director Jason Gay previously told HuffPost that he could not answer questions about specific residents’ care for privacy reasons, but that the home is sorry for Parkes’ loss and will respond to her lawsuit through the courts.
Parkes said the premier is “overstepping his bounds.”
“This is, in some cases, the only way we can get justification for the abuse, the neglect and the death. And then to have someone come in and change the rules, it’s hurtful. It’s a slap in the face.”
As of Tuesday evening, 2,619 Ontarians had died of COVID-19 and 1,670 of those people were either residents or workers in long-term care.
The families also took issue with two major laws the Ford government is expected to pass in coming weeks. Bill 161 is an omnibus justice bill that, among many other things, adds new certification tests for class action lawsuits. And Bill 175 makes sweeping changes to the way health care services are delivered to people at home. Critics say Bill 175 will gut public oversight of home care and hand over too much power to for-profit providers.
“When one draws the connection between Bills 161 and 175, it is particularly concerning,” said Innis Ingram, whose mother Catherine lives at Camilla Care Community in Mississauga, Ont., during a press conference with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath before the rally.
“Bill 175 virtually removes legislative and public oversight into home care while 161 makes justice exponentially more difficult to obtain by the families … This is a two-pronged attack on our seniors and the disabled and their families.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Attorney General Doug Downey said Bill 161 is meant to fix problems that “clog the system and slow down justice for everyone.”
The law will ensure that settlements are fair and transparent and that class actions only move forward when that is the most appropriate avenue for redress, Jenessa Crognali told HuffPost by email.
A spokesperson for Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said the government’s independent commission, announced in May, will deliver answers about what happened during the pandemic.
“What has occurred in long-term care homes across Ontario is tragic, and our government is committed to getting justice and accountability for residents and their families,” Gillian Sloggett said by email.
The ministry of health said Bill 175 will update a home-care system designed in the 1990s.
A spokesperson for Premier Ford did not respond to a request for comment.
At the rally, other family members of people who have died of COVID-19 in nursing homes echoed Parkes’ and Ingram’s concerns.
Linda Boyce lost both of her parents to COVID-19 in the span of six days.
Her father Bill, 77, died May 24 and her mother Lucy, 87, died May 30. The couple shared a room at River Glen Haven Nursing Home in Sutton, Ont.
“They had their own room, they should have never gotten it,” Boyce told HuffPost Canada.
She said COVID-19 would not have spread so quickly throughout the home, where 33 of the total 119 residents have died during the pandemic, if infection control protocol had been followed.
“I will take it to my grave. I will not stop fighting for them.”
Ford is trying to prevent families from holding people responsible, she said.
“Somebody needs to be accountable for their deaths,” Boyce said. “I won’t stop, eh, if it kills me. I will take it to my grave. I will not stop fighting for them.”
River Glen Haven referred all questions to Southlake Regional Health Centre, the hospital that was ordered to take over the home on May 26.
A spokesperson for Southlake said that the home only has two active cases of COVID-19 currently, as opposed to the 20 active cases it had when the hospital took over.
“Over the past three weeks, Southlake has separated patients grouping those who have tested positive from those who have not to prevent further spread of COVID-19,” Kathryn Perrier told HuffPost by email. “We have conducted a deep-clean of the home and provided education and coaching for staff on the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE).”
Marilyn Xuereb said that she lost her father Chris, who would have turned 80 next month, to COVID-19 at Downsview Long Term Care in North York, Ont.
“I can tell you that before the lockdown I went to visit him. He was his normal, chubby self. And when I saw him in the hospital, he was skin and bones,” she told HuffPost. “That doesn’t happen in a week, a week of an illness.”
Her family also said they do not believe proper infection control protocol was followed.
GEM Health Care Group, the company that owns Downsview, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The families’ rally was briefly interrupted by another group of demonstrators.
Protesters with a group called “Fearless Ontario,” which says it is opposed to Ontario’s state of emergency, stood in the middle of the group of families before their event began, holding signs that said “Hugs over Masks.”
The long-term care demonstrators told them this was insensitive and shouted “shame.”
A peace officer on the scene said the “verbal debate” was resolved without arrests or anyone being removed from the premises.
Fearless Ontario did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
When Horwath brought up the demonstration during question period Tuesday, Ford defended his government.
“The people who are gathering today on the lawns of Queen’s Park—their question to the Premier is: Will anyone be held accountable for the failures in long-term care?” Horwath asked.
“We’ve been very clear that we’ll review the long-term-care system once we get through this pandemic,” the premier said.
“We announced that we will be launching an independent commission in July. We will get down to the bottom of this.”