This is an opinion column from Paul Caune, a lawyer for people with disabilities. More information about CBC’s opinion, Please look at … FAQ.
The biggest problem for citizens living in long-term care facilities is that they have no practical way of enforcing their civil rights.
I know because I’ve seen that.
For two years, I lived at the George Pearson Center, an LTC facility for people with disabilities in Vancouver, where I received inadequate care.
In 2005 I challenged the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority when they told me I couldn’t refuse to be moved to the center. The details of what happened next are covered in the CBC documentary The Golden Rule.
Although I no longer reside in George Pearson, it comes as no surprise to me to see similar complaints in the same facility. For years, residents and their families at George Pearson have been fighting for better care. It has been a long and frustrating struggle, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
My experience inspired me to co-found Civil Rights Now, an organization that has been proposing since 2012 that the British Columbia government pass legislation similar to the United States Civil Rights Act (CRIPA).
A woman waves to a relative through a window at the George Pearson Center in Vancouver on December 3, 2020. (Ben Nelms / CBC)
This law would give an independent government agency the power to investigate conditions in public or private facilities for disabled citizens. If the evidence justifies this, the agency could take legal action against the owner of the facility. If a judge is convinced that the residents’ civil rights have been violated, the judge could impose heavy fines on the owner.
The U.S. Department of Justice has successfully used CRIPA litigation since 1980 to force dozen of facilities, prisons, and facilities for people with developmental disabilities to stop violating their residents’ civil rights.
Canada does not have a similar law.
Why do we need such a law in BC?
BC has a long history of abuse in government-run institutions, including residential schools for indigenous children and institutions for children with disabilities such as Woodlands and the Jericho Hill School for the Deaf.
Even after these horrific facilities have been closed, vulnerable citizens are still being put at risk by the government.
In 2011, the British Columbia government admitted it had been unable to determine the extent to which frontline workers at LTC facilities were complying with their legal obligations to obtain informed consent from local residents or local residents’ recognized medical decision-makers.
After a lengthy investigation into elderly health care, the British Columbia Ombudsperson concluded in 2012 that the Department of Health does not require caregivers to report information showing that elderly people receiving… home care services are being abused.
BC Senior Attorney Isobel Mackenzie can only advise and make recommendations to the government. Paul Caune writes that long-term care residents need more empowerment to enforce their civil rights. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)
Some might say that BC doesn’t need legislation like CRIPA because the province has an advocate for seniors and the health authorities have quality offices for patient care.
Regardless of the outcome of her investigation, the seniors’ attorney, Isobel Mackenzie, can only advise and make recommendations to the government.
Similarly, patient quality review boards can only make recommendations – and health officials have a conflict of interest investigating complaints against themselves.
As for the argument that LTC residents could hire their own lawyers, many simply cannot afford to do so.
Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that every citizen has a civil right to equal protection and benefit from the law, without discrimination based on age or mental or physical disability. But if a citizen living in an LTC facility has no practical way of enforcing that citizenship, then they don’t have it.
Those who forget the history of abuse in government-run facilities in British Columbia condemn vulnerable people to repeat it. We cannot expect LTC institutions to honestly investigate or punish their own abuse of power.
When you are disabled and your civil rights are violated, you don’t need a good hug – you need a good lawyer.
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