The government will open a commission of inquiry to examine the devastating impact of the pandemic on long-term care homes, which has seen over 1,400 resident deaths due to the coronavirus so far.
The decision makes the Ontario government the first province to call a commission to look into the situation, and follows weeks of calls to do so. But the government stopped short of electing to pursue a full-blown public inquiry as the opposition asked for, arguing that a commission is faster, and time is of the essence.
"We aren't going to be waiting two-and-a-half, three years," Premier Doug Ford said at his daily afternoon news conference, comparing it to the time it took for the SARS Inquiry, a virus that killed 44 Canadians, and the Wettlaufer Inquiry, which looked into a serial killer nurse who confessed to killing eight people.
"We need answers now," added the premier, who promised full transparency with the public. The commission will start in September. The government did not flesh out the parameters of the commission, but in a statement Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton promised it would be "an independent non-partisan commission" and that its review would be "thorough and expedited." The terms of the review will be set over the next few months.
"The public will be involved in hearings and deputations," said Fullerton at a post-Question Period media availability.
Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for the premier, further stressed in tweets that timeliness was a priority, and argued that previous reviews have been done on the long-term care system, and there is no need to duplicate the work. She referred to Justice Eileen Gillese's inquiry into the Wettlaufer murders, which looked at security and safety at long-term care homes.
Ontario just had a public inquiry into long-term care homes. We have 91 recommendations from Justice Gillese's four-volume report. We know COVID-19 has presented new challenges, but we also know we can't wait years for another inquiry. We must act quickly to deal with the crisis. https://t.co/TIqVrZG0aq
— Ivana Yelich (@yelich_ivana) May 19, 2020
The opposition was skeptical that the commission will be sufficient.
"Today's announcement, while welcome, does not specify if the commission will look into the COVID-19 deaths in long term care or into the government's response," stated Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca. The Liberals have called for a public inquiry into long-term care homes for several weeks.
"It's vital that the terms of reference for the commission be broad and include the response of the long term care homes and the government to COVID-19. It would be an injustice if the commission is not allowed to study the over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths," he added.
The NDP planned to force a vote on adopting a public inquiry Tuesday afternoon, which would likely fail given the majority PC government. But Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath made the case for the value of a public inquiry. "A government-controlled commission is just a review — a back-room process that won’t give long-term care residents and their families, seniors entering care, and loved ones of COVID-19 victims the voice they deserve, the respect they deserve, or the major overhaul to long-term care that all long-term care residents need and deserve."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said that the government deserves to be held to account for its role in the response to long-term care homes, and that the terms of a public inquiry would ensure that transparency. "The Conservatives have been in power for two years, and their actions deserve to be put under the microscope as much as those of previous governments."
Independent MPP Randy Hillier, a former PC member, was more blunt. "An independent commission can be anything. Generally it's smoke and mirrors," he said at Queen's Park following question period, responding to questions from CityTV's James Tumelty. "They're used to blur and deflect and not actually find fact and truth," he said, casting a skeptical eye on the process.
The Ontario Health Coalition also called for a public inquiry, citing the need for "unimpeachable credibility."
The Service Employees International Union, which represents some frontline health-care workers in long-term care facilities, pointed to powers public inquiries have under provincial legislation to argue that a commission that does not have the ability to make its own rules and processes and has government restrictions on calling witnesses is not independent at all.
Stockwoods LLP lawyer Brian Gover, who has experience working on the Walkerton Inquiry, Air India Inquiry and Arar Commission, welcomed the government opening a commission into the issue of long-term care homes during the pandemic. "It is a good idea to have a commission of inquiry to look into long-term care facilities," he told QP Briefing, saying that it has the potential to shine a light on problems that have existed for a long time.
While public inquiries have special parameters and authority enshrined in legislation, Gover characterized public inquiries and commissions as "largely the same thing," but also offered best practices that he would like to see. "This particular commission of inquiry ought to be public," Gover stressed, citing the high educational and public interest value of the subject. "Allow the public to know what caused this."
He underscored the urgency of the situation, saying that whoever gets appointed as the commissioner will want to advance two lines of inquiry at the same time — what happened, and what recommendations can be made. Given the nature of the pandemic, those findings have immediate value, he added. "It's a race against time," adding that the modern practice is to get as much material as you can as soon as you can and to publish it.
Gover also said that commissions of inquiry have two advantages over public inquiries. "The problem will public inquiries is that they tend to be very costly and take too long."
The PC government has had one high-profile commission of inquiry thus far, which examined the state of the province's finances after the Liberals were voted out of power. The commission, chaired by former British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, met in secret and produced a deficit number that no independent officer of the legislature agreed with; the premier repeated that misleading deficit number today when questioned by the media.