Premier Doug Ford and key ministers not on long-term care commission witness schedule

Premier Doug Ford and key ministers not on long-term care commission witness schedule

The independent commission into long-term care hasn't arranged for Premier Doug Ford and his ministers of long-term care and health to testify, a spokesperson told QP Briefing.

But while Ford, Long-Term Care Minister Merrillee Fullerton and Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott are not on the witness schedule, "future witnesses cannot be ruled out," the spokesperson said in an email.

Upon hearing that, some advocates and long-term care families urged the commissioners to add the politicians to the witness list. Maureen McDermott, whose mother lived through a severe COVID-19 outbreak at the River Glen Haven long-term care home, didn't mince words.

"That's bullshit," she said.

McDermott has become a long-term care activist, organizing protests with other families and participating in media conferences with the Ontario NDP. She said having the political leaders testify — Fullerton in particular — could give families something the advocacy hasn't been able to accomplish so far.

"It's forcing accountability that we've all been waiting for," she said.

She accused the long-term care minister of deflecting questions about the crisis.

"All of her downplaying is such an enormous slap in the face to us families that have been suffering for nine months now, losing people, being shut out from our families, watching our families completely deteriorate and watching them die through windows and on Skype and phone calls," McDermott said. "We need them to come forward and just be honest."

Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, had a similar message but cautioned that the politicians' testimony needs to be given under specific circumstances to give the families what they need.

"Do you need to hear Doug Ford say how they've done a great job, and the chief medical officer of health has been great, and the minister of long-term care is great? I can hear that any day at a press conference," she said.

Meadus ran through a list of questions she'd ask the politicians about decisions she suspects were made for political reasons but had severe consequences — on the long-term care inspection regime, on personal protective equipment, on staffing and on the reluctance to transfer residents to hospitals.

"We want to hear from them. We want to hear answers," she said. "I don't want to have them simply come and regurgitate what we've heard at press conferences."

The testimony needs to be under oath, in a public forum, with tough questions asked — and while the commission has the legal power to hold such hearings, it doesn't have a lot of time, said Meadus.

The news comes shortly after the Ford government shut down a request from the commission to continue its work beyond its deadline of the end of April, 2021. In response, the commission said it would only continue to accept submissions from members of the public until the end of January.

For months, the commission had been warning that the government has delayed releasing requested documents, telling QP Briefing in November and December that its work was being impeded by the failure to turn over material that would explain the rationale for government decisions concerning COVID-19.

The commission repeated that concern in a letter to Fullerton on Dec. 23, subsequently published on its website, that noted the government had promised full co-operation with the commission when it was established last summer.

In response to Fullerton's denial of the extension, the SEIU Healthcare union called on the commissioners to use their powers to compel testimony directly from the minister of long-term care and premier.

"If they fail to take these necessary steps, the commission will have lost the faith of the public," she said. "Its final report can carry no weight unless the commission is able to fully exercise its mandate free of political interference from the Ford government.”

While there is precedent for premiers to be called at inquiries and commissions, it is not the norm. The notable exception is Premier Mike Harris's testimony at the Walkerton Inquiry in 2001.

(Photo: Greeted by protesters, flanked by OPP bodyguards, then-premier Mike Harris arrives to testify at the Walkerton Inquiry in Walkerton, Ontario, June 29, 2001. Steve Russell / Toronto Star.)

Media coverage from the time described him walking through a throng of protesters, flanked by security — a scene that would not likely be repeated in today's age of social distancing, as the commissioners have been conducting their interviews over Zoom.

In 2001, the Toronto Star reported that Harris sought to convey he was "accountable but blameless" and described him using talking points and sidestepping questions. It also captured the reaction of some members of the public who watched the hearing at a local bar or attended in person, saying they were "appalled" or "angry" at what they heard.

Jessica Smith Cross

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