It would also give judges the ability to prohibit anyone who is convicted or on probation for that offence from volunteering or working in a setting “that involves being in charge of or in a position of trust or authority towards an adult who is vulnerable by reason of age, illness, mental disorder, disability or frailty.”
Fry said her intention is to prevent the failures of long-term care during the pandemic from ever happening again.
“COVID exposed a lot of vulnerabilities that we, smugly, as governments and as caregivers and as a physician myself, always thought were being cared for. It exposed that there were holes in the safety net,” she said in an interview. “The system was not up to the task.”
Fry said Justice Minister David Lametti “does not have any problem” with the bill, and answered in the affirmative when asked whether she believes the government is on board with the approach.
A spokesman for the Justice Department would only say that officials are “exploring potential Criminal Code reform options to better address senior abuse and neglect.”
Experts say the bill is a step in the right direction but risks being a public-relations exercise and falling short of meaningful change if the government ends up supporting it in isolation.
The Criminal Code amendments themselves look like “a very viable approach,” said Graham Webb, executive director of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and previously its longtime staff lawyer.
He added that the definitions around “managers” and “owners” of the homes could be fine-tuned to make sure that individuals at the top who control the money and the resources available to staff are held responsible for neglect, rather than individual front-line workers.
But Krista James, national director of the Canadian Centre for Elder Law, said prosecutions under Section 215 are already few and far between, and she is skeptical of the impact of amending it.
Asked whether she thought the bill could be a deterrent, James quipped: “You would hope that people providing long-term care would want to provide good care to the vulnerable older adults living in their facilities, whether or not they went to jail if they didn’t.”
Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said there has been “no consequence whatsoever” for abuse and neglect that was exposed during the pandemic, or for the needless deaths of residents due to poor infection control and non-COVID-19 reasons such as dehydration and starvation.
Though there is much to be done by the provincial governments that oversee long-term care, Ottawa has a role to play in holding provinces accountable to better standards of care, Mehra said, by attaching more strings to federal health transfers.
That and finally following through on the promise to hold bad actors criminally responsible.
“I think we need to search our conscience if the lives of the elderly are not worth a formal government bill,” she said, “and real change with teeth.”