Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a politician who is too often inclined to be timid, needs to act boldly (Photo: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

Surging deaths in Canadian long-term care facilities have blown Canada’s COVID-19 death projections to smithereens.

Last night, the CBC reported the number of deaths from COVID-19 is already double what Ottawa thought it would be only a week ago. “As more deaths are reported and counted over the next day, the toll could double even the higher estimates,” the CBC report continued grimly.

Journalist Nora Loreto (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted the deaths are the result of outbreaks in long-term care.

If you’re a Boomer of a certain age, this should scare the hell out of you. If you’re not, don’t be too smug. Old age will come at you sooner than you expect, and that’s if you’re lucky.

That so many of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths are happening to people in long-term care is pretty obvious to anyone who has been tracking the impact of the coronavirus in Canada, as has Quebec journalist Nora Loreto.

Canada’s coronavirus death toll sits at 1,195 and I’ve linked 682 deaths to various care facilities,” Ms. Loreto tweeted last night. That’s 57 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths. The spreadsheet she has created is frightening, and informative.

The CBC’s report of the prime minister’s remarks said this was due to “unexpected outbreaks” in long-term care. But if you’ve been paying attention to the galloping privatization in long-term care — a phenomenon that has also impacted the way things are done in not-for-profit and even public facilities — there’s nothing unexpected about it at all.

This is not complicated to figure out. Scrimping on medical equipment needed by residents and caregivers, cutting corners on safety, chronic understaffing, low wages and job insecurity for staff are all part of the formula for big profits in the long-term-care “industry.” They are also part of the conditions that have made so many seniors’ homes more vulnerable than they should be to a galloping infection.

The only surprise has been the timing of the global coronavirus pandemic. Creeping privatization of seniors’ care has been encouraged by neoliberal governments throughout Canada for decades.

Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions President Linda Silas (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This is not just a tragedy, it’s a story with a significant political side. And I mentioned you Boomers for a reason — because you’re not only old enough to vote, obviously, nowadays you’re inclined to.

And any political party that will actually do something to make long-term care safer — not just mouth the usual anodyne platitudes while doing the same old thing — stands to gain politically as a result.

After all, as Dr. Johnson famously observed, “a hanging in a fortnight concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully.” Even the prospect can have this effect.

Health care is a provincial matter under Canada’s constitution, of course, and the United Conservative Party provincial government here in Alberta is of the sort that loves to eliminate regulations, fight with doctors in the middle of a pandemic, drive the feisty ones right out of the province, and has never seen a public service that it doesn’t view as an opportunity for privatization.

Premier Jason Kenney, who is know to covet the prime minister’s job, would be happy to try to blame Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal government for this state of affairs if he gets the opportunity. He’s not a man, our premier, who’s held back by an overdeveloped sense of irony.

So if Mr. Trudeau wants to avoid being smeared for the disaster now unfolding, and not incidentally for the lack of federal policy from generations of Liberal and Conservative federal governments alike that has helped make it possible, he needs to act, and he needs to act boldly.

Journalist Tom Parkin (Photo:

Here’s what he could do and should do: Commit, right now, while the iron is hot, to creating a new federal transfer earmarked for provincial long-term care, tied to higher standards of care, not-for-profit operation, and the elimination of low-wages and part-time, precarious work.

If those words sound familiar, I’ve borrowed most of them from a recent tweet by Tom Parkin, progressive journalist and sometime Ontario NDP candidate. But this is a compressed version of the same program that has been energetically pushed by Linda Silas of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions for a decade at least.

Ms. Silas is now a candidate to lead the Canadian Labour Congress — although like many things, that campaign is on hold as health care workers and the country focus on COVID-19.

I’ve heard Ms. Silas speak on many occasions, and she never fails to note the deplorable conditions for residents and workers in Canada’s long-term care machine, and the need for change to make the system serve its users.

Historically, the chimerical cost cutting promised by privatization and its smooth-talking advocates is too tempting for most politicians, even some New Democrats.

COVID-19 could change that, at least while the memory lingers, because it has laid bare the dangers of handing off seniors’ care to predatory profit-seeking corporations. We’ve heard a few horror stories in the past few days, and we’ll hear many more before this is over.

Such a policy would be easy to advocate, simple to implement using a formula like that of the Canada Health Act, fair to working people and to seniors, and it would even provide a boost to the economy at a moment of great fragility. Because if you want to create jobs, there’s no better investment than health care. And if you want to put money in the hands of people who will spend it in Canada, there’s nothing like secure work with fair wages.

All it would take is a little spine.

Mr. Trudeau, alas, is a politician too often characterized by timidity.

This is an opportunity for him to channel his old man, have a real “just watch me” moment, and save his own bacon. Not only that, he’d doing the right thing!

Join the Conversation


  1. There are so many things wrong in the long-term care system that it’s difficult to find anything done right. That is my experience of having dealt with the system for a decade as of this month. The way things stand, these places are nothing more than death waiting for an opportunity to happen. I have long held the opinion that the only thing keeping these places open is lack of access to medical assistance in dying, especially for people with cognitive issues like dementia. Tell me there hasn’t been an expensive and extensive lobbying effort by the long term care industry to deny the right to death with dignity ; I won’t believe you. The industry is so profitable that foreign governments like China have invested in it, including one Calgary seniors’ residence with Covid-19 now.

    Wouldn’t that be ironic: wage subsidies for underpaid employees to help the Chinese government run for-profit seniors’ facilities in Canada.

    The solution to this crisis of care for our most vulnerable won’t be quick or easy. Better answers need to start now and continue in the future.

    1. The Chinese government purchased a chain in B.C. also and 4 of the homes have been placed under government trusteeship because the care was so bad. My take is they didnt’ buy them to run care homes, but rather to gain access to the land they sit on. Some of them sit on prime realestate in Vanocuver.

  2. When we allow private nursing homes, we enable vulture capitalists to use seniors as profit centres. They operate on the fewer services equal more income model.

  3. So the generation that enjoyed low taxes, actual interest payments on savings, the opportunity for a pension, and governments who didn’t save for their future healthcare costs wants the system fixed? The majority of which voted for these neoliberal governments who championed shipping our manufacturing to low cost countries and sold out our country. Interesting problem that we have found ourselves in and unfortunately one that will be used by politicians to further divide us. The problem won’t be solved of course as, to put it bluntly, it will take care of itself over time. A horrible way to look at things I know but our current political class hasn’t shown any indication they don’t think this way. Will millennials and the generations after them see that immediate gratification must at times be sacrificed to have any kind of future? Will there be a push for a properly funded public healthcare system not just now but also in the future?
    The real question for Trudeau junior is will he say just watch me like his father did and sell us out to global banking interests? Given who is benefiting from the bail outs the likely answer is yes he will. Ultimately Kenney and Trudeau play for the same team Trudeau on the surface just seems nicer. It is like the Bush jr Obama comparison Obama was a better speaker but in the end thousands still lost their life.

    1. Jim, as a baby boomer I am upset to read your comment, not because it is offensive but because you are correct – and the truth hurts.

      I hadn’t expected to hear that line of thinking so soon, however. I wasn’t expecting it for another 10 or 15 years, when aging baby boomers create a huge demand for long term care facilities.

  4. Whole heartedly agree! Remember the 80 year old guy featured on CBC National News who went to a lawyer and orchestrated his own death because, as he said, “I’ve lived a good life and I don’t want to end up in long term care.” He did that so no one would be implicated in his death because he had at least one person help him out and be a witness to his death. The clip did not indicate how he died. CBC was doing features at the time on medically assisted death.
    I know of folks who have ended up in long term care but if they could have had medically assisted death before that, they would have done it. As it is, the only thing some can do in long term care is to consciously stop eating and drinking, and refuse their medications, if they make a decision to die.
    Such is the reputation of long term care even in not-for-profit facilities where short-staffing, low wages and short shifts, etc., as stated above, are prevalent. And, sadly, many employees at the HCA (health care aid) level either have not acquired a post-secondary education or do not have the ability to do so.
    The work at the HCA level is hard, hard work, but it would be easier if staffing level ratios to residents, was higher, which, of course, means more cost.
    And for older folks with dementia, there was a time in Alberta during the boom years that it was considered for dementia units to have a more skilled staffing mix and a much higher employee to resident ratio. It did not happen.
    “Today’s letters: COVID – 19 – The economics of long term care are ugly”
    The author of this letter here, is in his 90th year, and is suggesting that these institutions be mandated to pay the employees at the HCA level $30/hour, give them full-time positions, benefits and a pension which could attract more folks to do this work….and, again, a decent staffing to resident ratio which means, increased staffing.
    COVID – 19 sure has laid bare long term care foibles, glaringly.

  5. Once the crisis is over there could be a lot of thought about what worked and what were problems, or in the rush to get back to normal governments and others could try to sweep most of it under the carpet, like in 2008. Hopefully, it is the former as it seems fairly clear that the cost of just trying to go back to the way things were before will be too high.

    The only time you usually hear courage and politician in the same sentence is when they have done something unpopular and lost an election, but perhaps this is the time for a bit of courage of a different type or at least better thinking. As has become clear lately, trying to do things on the cheap has disastrous consequences.

    I agree Premier Kenney has not given up on higher political aspirations, the term political junkie could probably apply to him. I don’t think it is likely, but I suspect there is still a chance for that in his future. Canadians don’t seem that enthusiastic about MacKay, although he is probably more saleable to mainstream voters than Scheer who was too closely tied to all things social conservative. With that lack of enthusiasm and with memories of past scandals fading, chances are the Liberals may muddle through the next election somehow, particularly as the Conservatives still don’t seem inclined to come up with a realistic climate change plan. If that happens, I suspect the Conservatives may turn on MacKay as quickly as Scheer and the job could be open again before the next Alberta election.

    1. The solution would be, form a committee. NONE political.
      Made up of nurses in the field, administrators, in the field,
      Janitorial services, in the field, the field.
      Ask them to present the problems. They will come up with solutions !!!!! Again NO politicians.

  6. A proposal from the Foundational Economy Collective ( goes even further in advocating that government (not just federal, but at all levels) be involved in many more aspects of our economy that just health ‘care’. This, of course, will not fly for all those of all political stripes who advocate for “free markets” – which seem to be crying out very loudly for taxpayer $$$ for the survival of said “free markets”.
    This second failing of “free markets” in this century is costing most of us a lot, and it will not be the last one – before another 10 years pass, there will be a third! This third one will consist of meeting the “limits of our finite planet” and energy depletion; thus subsequent further costs for most of us (our well-being); as well as being deleterious to our health.
    Try suggesting that to the so-called ‘elites’ who have decided already what future they want us to have!!!!

  7. The crazy in this whole pandemic is that Doug Ford is suddenly an adult and being a leading premier.

    He’s initiated the apparatus of the government and is pushing for reforms that he never cared about before. And considering the unfolding and rising body count from seniors’ care homes, it’s becoming apparent, more than ever, that CONs will not be able to count on the senior vote to get them re-elected. There maybe no seniors left by the next election.

    With the myriad of income supports unleashed by Trudeau’s government, it’s apparent that the confusing volume of programs could have been easily minimized and made more effective by a national guaranteed income program. I see this as an enormous positive policy opportunity that has been lost.

    Indeed, PMJT has been timid, while Ford has come across as the leader in a massive program of reform in Ontario.

    But we can always count on Kenney to constantly shoot himself in the face at every opportunity.

    If he’s not giving away PPE and disregarding that there maybe a second wave of infections, and all the while carrying on a war against health care professionals, he’s trying to get Dr. Tam fired because she is as agent of the PRC. Okay, Kenney has never seen a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, but no one else is buying into this nonsense. Of course, he’s shadowing Trump’s insanity, but the rest of the G7 have told Trump to stuff-it and are stepping up to the support the WHO.

    I can’t wait for Kenney to unleash another round of stupid on Alberta. And Alberta is, of course, too stupid to know any better.

  8. Like an electric or gas utility, long term homes for the elderly should be regulated by an independent Public Utilies Board. For that is what a privately-owned seniors home is — a public utility. The financial returns should be regulated accordingly, following an agreed upon operating structure and operational standards. That practice was standard for the electric monopoly provincially-owned crown corporation I worked for. Regulation by a Public Utilities Board. IMO, it also resulted in a pretty good operation. Not a soul sat around reading the newspaper as in the fables of yore. They worked harder than at the national private company I spent my previous seven years, which surprised me.

    When privatization of the utility occurred, the rates did not change. So, in what common sense will tell you without any need for a commerce degree, something else had to change. Specifically, in order to now also pay dividends and the inflated pay of the new execs with the same corporate income, working people were fired. The usual horse manure about private being more efficient was trotted out to wise nods of approbation from the learned sages of the business world. More advanced training in live line work was gradually ended, linemen were let go and outsourcing of everything became the buzzword. Other vultures were circling for a nibble at the carcass as time went by. The place went visibly downhill, and practices became less thorough. Sure they met the standards of the regulator, but only just with no wiggle room for good deeds or better practices. And all that had happened was that the parasitical hordes, including myself I must confess, got paid dividends out of money that once provided service to the customer. British Rail and the GPO pulled off the same dare-devil manoeuvres to the detriment of the customer over in the UK. If you want money for non-productive jam, first have some money already, then privatize a public corporation – it’s how the rich get paid for doing nothing but having the initial money to finance the deal. And did the average citizen of our province get even a solid looney each for the collective assets they owned which were unilaterally flogged off by the provincial government to a few people? Of course not! The money was taken and used to pay down the provincial debt, or lower the borrowing that year, I forget which. Just an another underpriced sell-off. Worth $2 billion in assets, gone for 40% of that.

    With private elder care homes, the cowboys charge anything they want to private clients as they emphasize the pool and spa, take their “subsidy” from the province for the more “charity” cases if they cater to them, pay the owners a handsome return and provide the crap level of service you would well expect if you let the fox run the henhouse. It’s not rocket science to work out. Empathy was bred out of the investor brain thousands of years ago. Maximizing profit is the game.

    Private is always more expensive than public for the same level of service and pay to employees. If it’s less expensive, then the care is also even less good and the staff fewer. This applies in a mixed public/private social democratic economy — the all-state solution of the old USSR don’t work. If elder residence standards were designed and enforced, then you might see competition for better customer service, but to give a minimum standard, regulation by a utilities board is a must. Only common sense to me. But hey, what do I know, I’m not a UCP or Con supporter who can recite Ayn Rand by heart. The recipe that government uses is always to concentrate wealth in ever fewer hands. And oh btw, I see Justin has roped me in to remediate old Alberta oil and gas wells. Even the Global TV commenter who’s always been pro-business in my view, one David Akin, seemed a bit startled at the largesse he had been roped into paying for, saying usually provincial royalties paid for that sort of thing. But our Justin and certainly Morneau are as neoliberal as the winter night is long. And Alberta gets another freebie to keep the dying oil industry going. Sh!t, don’t we own the place by now? It’s just one big stranded “asset” whose refined product is in negative worth territory. Let’s not forget other more normal giveaway money has also been handed over direct to the private oil companies. The remediation pot is presumably for jason to distribute with grubby paws. Next thing you know, he’ll think it’s his.

  9. Suddenly Trudeau is being asked to do virtually everything – many of which are the provinces’ domain.

  10. Healthcare in Canada is a lot like the character “Violet”, played by Brooke Shields in the old flick “Pretty Baby”: raised up to be exploited and provide a winfall for the exploiters when the time is right. The corporate parasites have been salivating at the prospect of deflowering the public system for forty years, and a little thing like a massacre of senior citizens is not going to hold them back.
    Although nobody spinning the deadly Chupacabra fable wants to face the fact, the only people at risk of severe disease are those over seventy or those with a significant co-existant ailment. Closing the schools, and the pools, and the rinks, and the playgrounds, and the gyms is absurd and has clearly not prevented the wipe-out in the vulnerable population.
    40% of deaths in Alberta in a single facility and we’re still going to play the social distancing game? I’m a big proponent of the constraints method in coaching, so perhaps the game can be modifided to include staying away from the Mckenzie Towne facility as one of the precautionary measures. It would apparently reduce the likelihood of dying from the bug in Alberta significantly.
    The info stream from the Provincial Government has of course, broken down, but we’re to accept the explosion of positive tests in a single day, 162, after more than a month of Terror and the duck-and-cover program. The most ever tested in a day was 4400 with a positive rate of under 2%, and now there was either a jump in testing to 8000 in a day or the infection rate magically jumped to 6 or 7%. Most days in April testing has been under 2500 test per.
    There will never be any way to determine the effectivenes of any measures from this clown-show because there is no way to assess the role of stress in killing the infirm. This is a science-free health emergency.
    Given that the trend across the country has been to insert LPN’s into the jobs held by RN’s, and given the fact that the Chupacabra has blown a yet-to-be-determined hole in the national economy, how exactly will any increases in long-term care standards be paid for? Harpo managed to slip the banks $7 billion through the CMHC backdoor last time, so it remains to be seen how the bank bail-out in Canada will be performed, but, rest assured, there will be no long-term federal cheese for long-term care improvements.

  11. Dear Mr. Climanhaga:

    That was the perfect column for today’s tribulations.

    I am a lifelong progressive supporter and I am losing patience with Trudeau. I too am waiting for him to do something bold with this.

    If you want to look into the future of health care in Alberta for our seniors, look eastward to the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ontario

    Bobcaygeon, in Ontario, is a monstrous failing of privatized health care.

    This abomination in health care is just part of the legacy of Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who gave the green light for privatized age care while Premier.

    My understanding is that Mike Harris is Chairman of the Board of one of Canada’s biggest private health care operations for Seniors. Chartwell.

    1. Jaundiced Eye, I don’t disagree, but we don’t need to look at Ontario for examples. There are a couple of continuing care institutions right here in Oilbertastan that illustrate the point just as alarmingly. Of course, there is the infamous McKenzie Towne facility in Calgary, which has gained national attention. However, a bit more under the radar on the national stage, there is also the 50-resident Manoir du Lac facility in tiny McLennan, Alberta, in the heart of the Peace Country’s Franco-Albertan region. That little facility has had 26 confirmed cases among residents, and 11 amongst staff; 5 residents have died. It has led AHS to take over its operation

      From the broader perspective, Canada needs to rethink long-term care as a health service first & foremost. Seniors don’t go into long-term care, supportive living, or whatever, because they no longer want to live in their own homes. They go in because their health has declined to the point where they no longer can. Seniors whose health does not decline to the same extent are able to stay in their homes, or live independently in seniors-only apartments or condo buildings, perhaps with some support from extended family, home care &/or FCSS. All this talk about “residents” and “it’s their home” obfuscates the key issue: they’re there to receive care, period. If that care is not provided to a standard we can accept, we are failing them as a society, and that’s exactly what Canadians have allowed to happen in long-term care. We need to deprivatize each & every such facility, and bring them all under the jurisdiction of the federal Canada Health Act.

  12. Well, the bad word, ‘environmental’ overview of the promised clean up of re-claimed pollute tailing ponds.(which never would/did happen)..sure shows what lopping federal funds can produce.
    No feds or scientists were ever allowed to evaluate the supposed clean-up.

    On the contrary, the federal government was expected to simply transfer payments and shut up.

    Now we will soon be plagued with what….a 265 billion dollar pollution bill (while dough-boy Kenney is out to expand the tailing ponds)?
    Similar lack of security of finances or accountability were ever-present with the Heritage Trust Fund (excuse–known more as the conservative party re-election fund).

    Had enough hoping to finally see more than scamming re:- water diversion schemes and or carpetbaggers like the Koch Bros dictating and vacuuming more federal funds. Had enough period….I feel for each and every one who has been dossed and forgotten by the very governing blight that promised better and as usual delivered the better to those foreign/domestic corporations we need about as much as Covid-19.

  13. I agree with this suggestion. In 1965 or 1966, CBC’s storied (before it was axed by the Liberal federal government) “This Hour Has Seven Days” had a feature on long-term care homes and their operators. It was scary and my dad said that no matter how old he got, we were never to put him in the Moshe Zakanim, the Jewish Old Folks Home in Winnipeg. It was non-profit but I recall visiting my great-grandmother there and thinking that it was sad that she didn’t have her own room. Seven Days asked for comments from provincial governments who all said that they would implement changes. But anytime, though it was infrequent, that media followed up that story, nothing had changed. People who have worked in long-term care homes, particularly for-profits all tell horror stories as do many of the families. It’s obvious more than 50 years later that nothing has changed except that “care” homes are more likely than ever to be part of a chain. It’s time to finally end this charade that pretends that for-profit care homes have something to do with care and that provincial governments properly regulate them. Put care homes completely under government ownership and control and then at least everyone who ends up in one or more likely their families knows whose ass to kick when they turn out to be shit shows. And it is the federal government that needs to take the first step even though in the end it’ll be up to the provinces to cooperate. Alberta will of course be the last to do so since the UCP sees nothing wrong with vulnerable old folks being turned into corporate opportunities.

  14. In B.C. seniors’ care homes increased with the arrival of Gordon Campbell in the Premier’s office. Some private care homes were bought and sold like cars. Staff fired and then contracts let for new staff. Wages would fall as much as $8 an hr. short staffing was the usual. Foreign corporations bought up one chain in B.C. and 4 of the homes were placed under provincial trusteeship because the care was so bad. (my take on it was they bough the care homes for the real estate they sat on).

    WE have been hearing about terrible conditions and deaths for at least 2 decades in Canada. Its time to stop providing money for corporations who see seniors as a money making enterprise. Seniors health care ought to be part of the health care system in each provide and the care homes treated like hospitals. They need to be kept clean, really clean, not just surface clean. Staff ought to be paid the same as in hospitals. We also might want to encourage people not to enter care homes. Many don’t need to be. Independence would most likely improve their health and longevity.

    At 70 I’m an aging baby boomer. Would rather take the Trudeau exit, with a shot than go into long term care in one of these pest houses. Over the past 40 years there has been a trend to have seniors go into care, but to what avail? Hiding them doesn’t make them go away.

    Agree with the article. Trudeau needs to take the initiative and push through regulations for seniors’ care.

  15. David, I agree entirely with your premise.

    I do wonder, however, to what extent market forces will take care of the problem. I have been very impressed with how staff at my mother-in-law’s long term care facility (and all the other ones) have continued to soldier on. I can’t say I would. I expect family members of all health care workers can now empathize with the spouses of police officers as they watch their loved one go to work.

    I expect it is a combination of economics and a sense of duty/emotional attachment to the residents that sees the LTC workers continue to do their jobs. The point is, though, is who will choose to pursue work in this field in the future, now that risk of life has been added to the job description? Employers will have to open their purse strings more, on both the wages/benefits side and the protection side.

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