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When seven people died in Walkerton’s tainted water disaster, the province moved swiftly — three weeks later — to appoint a commissioner to lead a public inquiry into the crisis.
When ex-nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was sentenced to life in prison last month for the murder of eight Southwestern Ontarians in long-term care, the Liberal government the same day promised a public inquiry.
But more than three weeks later, with no update on who will head the inquiry or how it will unfold, and the legislature on its summer break until September, its ministers unable to be questioned by critics, Ontarians are still awaiting details of the investigation of the worst serial murderer in Canadian health-care history.
Not good enough, say opposition critics at Queen’s Park.
“This is not the first inquest or inquiry they’ve ever called in their life,” MPP Bill Walker, the Progressive Conservative long-term care critic, said of the Liberals.
“We want to know how accountable this will be, (and) what the scope of the investigation will include so everybody knows up front,” the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP said.
The government announced the inquiry June 26, the same day the former Woodstock nurse was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years for the murders of seven residents of a Woodstock long-term care home and another in London, between 2007 and 2014.
Wettlaufer also pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and two of aggravated assault — all, involving seniors in her care.
At the time, the government said it was getting ready to set the inquiry’s scope and appoint a commissioner to lead it. It said it was “actively engaged in finalizing these details,” and would publicly share developments.
But nearly a month later, with not a single update yet, MPP Teresa Armstrong of London said she’s starting to get concerned.
“This matter needs to be dealt with urgently,” said Armstrong, the London-Fanshawe MPP and seniors’ affairs critic for the Ontario New Democrats.
“It’s shameful. I personally think they’ve had enough time to deal with it,” she said, adding, “they don’t understand how important this is to families.”
The delay is a sharp contrast to Ontario’s response after Walkerton’s tainted water disaster in May 2000.
The then-Progressive Conservative government moved quickly, appointing Justice Dennis O’Connor as the commission lead just three weeks after the first death was reported from the Walkerton disaster, which not only killed but left thousands of people sick when the area’s drinking water supply was contaminated by E. coli bacteria from farm run-off.
The public inquiry began Oct. 16 that same year.
Just like the Walkerton inquiry, which cast a wide net examining Ontario’s drinking water standards and oversight of the system, Armstrong and the NDP want the Wettlaufer investigation to address broader issues in the long-term care sector, not just the murders.
“We realized, back when the Walkerton inquiry was happening, how important it is to get to the systemic problems when we’re dealing with people’s lives,” she said.
“We have to go further and we have to look into that what systemically is going wrong in long-term care.”
Nearly 80,000 Ontarians live in the more than 600 long-term care homes in the province. Their oversight by the government came under a harsh spotlight by its auditor general in a 2015 report that found backlogged home inspections for complaints and so-called “critical incidents” — things that must immediately be reported, ranging from neglect and abuse to improper care and unexpected deaths — doubled during 15 months.
Two years earlier, the province was found breaking its own nursing home inspection law. Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the ministry in charge responded by hiring an extra 100 inspectors and did complete comprehensive inspections of the long-term care facilities.
The Wettlaufer inquiry is coming as the Liberals head into an election year, the vote due by June 2018.
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi’s press secretary, in a written statement, said the government looks forward to releasing the details of the Wettlaufer inquiry in the near future.
“What happened was a tragedy. That’s why we are working quickly to appoint the commissioner, set out the scope and establish the independent public inquiry to look into the circumstances in this case,” wrote Andrew Rudyk.
Though the timeline for the inquiry isn’t clear, one national senior’s advocate is being patient. Jane Meadus of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, which was among the early groups calling for an investigation, said changes made to Ontario’s Public Inquiries Act in 2009 may have made the process a bit more complex.
“There’s a lot of background things that have to happen. Given that it’s summer, I’m not surprised that it’s taking longer,” she said.
“I wouldn’t want them to rush it too much. You want them to find the right person, you want them to have the proper terms of reference.”
Wanda Morris of CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, said she wouldn’t want to see the process rushed, either.
“What we really don’t want is a knee-jerk, ad hoc response,” said Morris. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
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