The Need to Enforce Rights: Accountability is a serious concern. Introductory commentary by Tony Seed to an interview by Workers’ Forum with Jason MacLean, President of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees’ Union (NSGEU).
The lack of accountability on the part of governments at all levels for what is happening to the people is a serious concern. There is no doubt that decisions that governments have taken and are taking have created the conditions for the dramatic and tragic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and safety of the people in Canada no less than the United States. Thirty years of anti-social offensive in health care and social services – with massive cutbacks, increased privatization, further concentration of decision-making power in ministerial hands and the marginalization and exclusion of the experience and opinions and demands of frontline workers, have wrecked the capacity of the health care system to face the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tragedy at Northwood Manor in Nova Scotia is one such example. It is the largest long term care facility east of Montreal. The vast majority of LTC facilities in Canada are privately-owned, publicly-funded and monopolized. In such private facilities, money relations command day-to-day health care of the residents, regardless of the well-intentioned concern of the overworked staff of the health workers. The Nova Scotia health sector’s largest for-profit provider, Shannex, is owned by billionaire Joe Shannon.
The catastrophic deaths of 53 elderly at Northwood during the pandemic shows how our people are at the same time relegated to civil death. Further, the monopoly media – Saltwire’s Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia as across Canada – buried the news while the death toll mounted. This was detailed by blogger Richard Starr, amongst others, back on May 1st (see here).
Nova Scotia, with its relatively low rate of infection and deaths compared to Ontario and Quebec, was la-la land. Governments and media trumpeted “we are all in this together” in the fight against the virus yet the core message was that the elderly were and are collateral damage in the “drive to reopen the economy” and “returning to normal.” This contemptible neo-liberal doublespeak is tantamount to fear-mongering – to disorient the residents, their families and the public: all is being done, nothing can be done. Long live the “Atlantic bubble” – an island exempt in the main from a global humanitarian crisis.
In contrast, different journalists from Nova Scotia Advocate, Examiner and local CBC along with Workers’ Forum exposed the atrocious conditions in Northwood and other facilities and the callous approach of official authorities. This media documented that the circumvention of public health protocols have been deliberate and not causal, and that it is not the form, but rather the criminal content that is the core of those revelations. It has been shown beyond any doubt that those who reap profit from long-term care put their narrow interests ahead of the well-being and lives of our seniors.
What constitutes accountability and to whom governing bodies should be accountable, who establishes them, their aim and who they serve cannot be left in the shade.
Pierre Chenier, editor of Workers’ Forum, puts the heart of the matter clearly in an editorial:
“When governments establish inquiries and commissions to look into the tragedies that are happening, they are doing so behind closed doors. This ensures that they do not look into the heart of the matter. Such inquires consider the first-hand experience, proposals and opinions and the voice of frontline workers as an impediment to their aim – to hold onto the power to make all the decisions not in the interest of the people but in the service of narrow private interests.
“Workers reject this state of affairs and are insisting that open public discussion take place in which the causes and solutions of the problems are put on the table and publicly examined. They do not accept so-called inquiries being used as instruments to block the people from having a decisive say in all the affairs that affect them. It is absurd to claim that frontline workers who keep the health care system functioning against all odds and at great sacrifices for themselves should be deprived of decision-making power in the system. The same thing applies to all sectors in which workers keep producing goods and services that allow society to function in this terrible time of crisis. This is why workers are firmly opposing the ‘business as usual’ dictate of the ruling elite, the ‘going back to normal’ because that ‘normal’ was precisely what made the crisis much worse and much more difficult to overcome and is threatening to make the situation even worse than it is.”
This blog actively supports the call for a public inquiry issued by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees’ Union, and the initiative of Workers’ Forum to put its pages at the disposal of the workers to make their voices heard, to smash the silence on their conditions and on their struggle for their rights and for the rights of all, and to open the path to solving the crises that are erupting in a way which favours the people. – Tony Seed
Demand for public inquiry into Northwood tragedy
– Interview, Jason MacLean –
Jason MacLean is President of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees’ Union (NSGEU).
Workers’ Forum: NSGEU is firm in its demand for a public inquiry into the disaster that took place at the Northwood nursing home in Halifax and into Nova Scotia’s long-term care system. Can you tell us more about this demand?
Jason MacLean: As far as Northwood is concerned, we must not forget that it is central to Nova Scotia’s long-term care system. Northwood has been considered the shining star of long-term care in the province. It’s the biggest long-term care facility east of Montreal. It was looked upon positively as the place where people would end up going for long-term care. It is central geographically because it’s located in the central region, in Halifax, and is also central figuratively because it was considered as the standard. And this is where we had this tragedy whereby 53 residents lost their lives in the spring.
We must learn what mistakes were made, where we had gaps in the whole system. We are also going to learn that we need to invest more into long-term care and the only way for us to be able to move along there, because it is going to cost money, is for everybody to be brought along into this whole pandemic and to look back at what decisions were made leading into it. But also, if we do that, we are going to set a framework for the future, so that other governments won’t make the kinds of decisions that led to what happened at Northwood. It did not just happen out of thin air. It happened because of certain decisions and of course, because of COVID-19. Nova Scotians need to be part of that because they need to embrace reform in long-term care. It is only going to happen if they bring people along in the review, instead of holding it behind closed doors and then making decisions with nobody understanding why changes are being made or if they are actually going to have an impact in improving the situation. Our demand is all about a public inquiry.
WF: Is there a motion at this time amongst the people of Nova Scotia to hold such a public inquiry?
JM: NSGEU has sought a public inquiry since the beginning. We were actually the first group to ask for a public inquiry. And then you even had the CEO of Northwood saying that she is open to having a public inquiry. Then there’s the 53 families of the people we lost at Northwood, who are also demanding a public inquiry. We believe there’s an upswell of support for a public inquiry amongst Nova Scotians, especially after they realized the power they do have in demanding an open public inquiry into the mass shooting that happened in Portapique. That changed the mind of the federal and the provincial government, which finally agreed to hold a public inquiry. If Nova Scotians want it to happen, it will happen.
WF: NSGEU’s report Neglecting Northwood  says that what happened at Northwood is a failure of public policy? What is the failure according to you?
JM: Many reports on long-term care have been written over the years and the recommendations coming out of them were not followed. Besides, in 2015 and 2017 there were budgets with cuts in them to long-term care facilities. In the entire seven years that Stephen McNeil has been in power, no new long-term care beds have been created, even though the acuity level of people in long-term care and those in hospitals have both increased. In home care, people are kept in their homes longer, with the acuity level rising there as well. So public policy has dictated that people are sicker longer in their homes instead of getting good care in long-term care facilities. Public policy has been offside for quite some time and we are seeing it now with this pandemic that has casualties attached to it, as we have seen at Northwood. That is tragic.
Public policy has been driven by budgets. The current government was not willing to invest in long-term care and that was to the detriment of people who need it. Our population is not getting any younger and more people are going to need long-term care facilities.
WF: Do you want to say something in conclusion?
JM: We are stuck in a pandemic. Things happened. Governments made decisions. What we are trying to do is to outline that we cannot continue in long-term care the way we have for the last 10 years. Investments in long-term care have deteriorated. We have to improve the system. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about having a good level of care for our seniors because they deserve it.
1. On April 18 and 19, a lone gunman dressed as an RCMP officer went on a 13-hour shooting rampage that began in the small rural community of Portapique in Nova Scotia. Twenty-two people were killed, and the gunman was shot dead by the police. For weeks, while the families of the victims and the people of the province demanded a public inquiry into the mass shooting, both the federal and the provincial governments stalled, finally announcing not a public inquiry but an independent review by a three person panel. As public pressure mounted against them, both the federal and provincial governments finally acceded to the demands and announced a public inquiry into the mass shooting.
2. To read the report Neglecting Northwood, click here.
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