Pressured for weeks for details, Ontario came under fire from families and critics when it laid out its broad plans Tuesday for a promised public inquiry into former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer’s murders at two Southwestern Ontario nursing homes.
Far from focusing only on Wettlaufer’s eight killings at two homes in Woodstock and London, the inquiry will cast a wide net to examine oversight in Ontario’s huge long-term care system, an issue for which the government has come under fire before, from its own auditor general.
When the inquiry will start, or where it will be held, still aren’t known, but its final report and recommendations won’t be due until two years from now, a timeline some critics found convenient for a government struggling in the polls and less than a year from an election.
“(The Liberals) can now say they called an inquiry, it’s in the system, it’s in process, so they can’t comment,” said Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker, long-term care critic for the Progressive Conservatives. “It really does sound like they’re just trying to get it swept under the rug, quiet it down so that it can’t be an issue,” in the next election, due by June 2018.
Justice Eileen Gillese of the Ontario Court of Appeal, a former Western University law dean, will head the inquiry, more details of which are expected Thursday in London. Gillese’s mandate begins immediately.
With 78,000 residents in about 630 homes, Ontario’s long-term care system is vast and complex. Families need action now, not two years away, to protect loved ones, some say.
“Families of the victims are waiting for some kind of answers,” said Oxford PC MPP Ernie Hardeman, in whose riding seven of Wettlaufer’s murders took place. “They (the government) didn’t give it any thought.”
Adult children of two of Wettlaufer’s victims — her first and last — were dismayed by the long process ahead, with one saying it’s too long.
“It’s not rocket science — the time line is crazy, it’s way too long,” said Andrea Silcox, whose father, James Silcox, 85, was Wettlaufer’s first victim.
Fired from Caressant Care nursing home in Woodstock over medication-related errors, Wettlaufer landed another job within a month at London’s Meadow Park nursing home, where she administered a lethal dose to the eighth and final victim of her insulin injection murders.
Sentenced to life in prison, in June, with no chance of parole for 25 years, the worst serial killer in Canadian health-care history pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder, four of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault — all involving vulnerable people in her care.
The murders took place over seven years, from 2007-14.
While the government has assured Ontarians they can have faith in the long-term care system, critics aren’t convinced.
“What’s being done in the interim to prevent similar actions (to Wettlaufer’s) from happening now?” Walker asked.
Not enough, said Ontario Health Coalition executive director Natalie Mehra.
“Seventy thousand people live in long-term care whose lives are at stake,” she said. “It’s a key issue that hasn’t been addressed in decades . . . There will be a lot of unanswered questions for two years.”
Mehra said the inquiry’s length “appears to be a political calculation” to drag issues out beyond the election.
But for all the talk of political motivations, Nelson Wiseman said the inquiry will have little effect when voters go the polls.
“When this story broke, I didn’t see any connection to politics at all,” said Wiseman, who teaches at the University of Toronto. “I don’t expect it (the inquiry) to be mentioned in the campaign at all.”
The inquiry will delve into Wettlaufer’s crimes, contributing factors and circumstances.
Gillese will review long-term care home accountability measures and make sure they match provincial benchmarks, the Attorney General’s Ministry said.
A year and a half ago, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found backlogged inspections of long-term care homes for complaints and so-called “critical incidents” — things that must be reported immediately, ranging from neglect and abuse to improper care and unexpected deaths — had doubled over 15 months.
Two years earlier, the government had been found to be breaking its own nursing home inspection law. Lysyk noted the ministry in charge responded by hiring 100 inspectors and doing complete inspections of all homes.
One group that pushed for a broad public inquiry, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, applauded Ontario’s move Tuesday.
“We will be insisting that no stone be left unturned in relation to the horrific Wettlaufer case and in relation to nursing homes more broadly,” said Doris Grinspun, head of the group representing 41,000 registered nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students.
It’s too early to determine the inquiry’s cost, but other inquiries have run to $10 million to $15 million, a government spokesperson said by email.
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What others had to say
“This is a pretty ambitious scope (for the inquiry) and I think it’s certainly worthy of the victims who died. By putting in both circumstances and systemic issues, that means that Commissioner Gillese can look at things like staffing and funding that might have . . . been contributors.”
— Wanda Morris, CARP, Canadian Association for Retired Persons
“Families need to get closure and find out what happened . . . But we need a full investigation and answers on how we can change things in long-term care and fix systemic problems.”
— Teresa Armstrong, Ontario NDP seniors’ affairs critic, London-Fanshawe MPP
“What happened to the victims and their families . . . was a tragedy. This inquiry will help provide answers to those affected and ensure something like this never happens again.”
— Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi