Twenty-five years ago, Mike Harris and his Progressive Conservative party ousted Rae's NDP government in Ontario, starting the so-called "Common Sense Revolution."
Pledging to tackle Ontario's deficit, the Harris government pushed tax reductions and slashed public spending on health care, education and social services. The government closed hospitals and eliminated the jobs of thousands of nurses, infamously comparing them to obsolete hula hoop makers.
How Ontario cared for seniors did not escape the cuts. Harris' government reduced the public role in long-term care, relaxing regulations and lessening public oversight. This wasn't the start of privatization, but it certainly opened the doors much wider. Under the Harris government, the growing corporate business of caring for seniors flourished and corporate players such as Sienna Senior Living, Revera, Extendicare and Chartwell expanded their reach, providing seniors with independent living, assisted living and long-term care housing – for a price.
Flash forward 25 years, as successive Conservative and Liberal governments continue this privatization trend.
Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, the country is witnessing the true vulnerability of seniors in long-term care homes. To date, more than 7,800 people have died from COVID-19 in Canada. More than 6,500 of them – 84 per cent – have died in these homes, according to data compiled by freelance journalist Nora Loreto.
As we have written about before, the spread of COVID-19 has been linked to the working conditions in these homes, particularly ones that are run by private operators. Study after study has shown that privatization means less care. Allowing corporations whose primary interest is shareholder profits to be in control of care decisions for vulnerable seniors leaves the seniors and their caregivers at risk.
Let's look at one seniors' housing company in particular.
Chartwell Homes describes itself as an "open-ended real estate trust which indirectly owns and operates a complete range of seniors housing communities, from independent supportive living through assisted living to long term care. It is the largest operator in the Canadian seniors living sector with over 200 quality retirement communities in four provinces, including properties under development."
The company operates homes in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec and employs more than 15,000 people, most of them women.
And the chair of Chartwell's Board of Directors? It's none other than former Ontario premier Mike Harris. His tenure in the position dates back to at least 2004 according to online records. He was premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002.
The rest of Chartwell's corporate directors come from big banks, real estate, tax, audit and investment corporations. It's a full list of corporate heavy weights without a single health care or seniors' representative.
Reading Chartwell's 144-page 2019 Annual report, its focus is clearly on its real estate portfolio, growth and on profit returns for investors. It's about making money for shareholders, reporting income and growth, not about caring for seniors.
In May, the Toronto Star reported that "three of the largest for-profit nursing home operators in Ontario, which have had disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, have together paid out more than $1.5 billion in dividends to shareholders over the last decade."
The article states, "This massive sum does not include $138 million paid in executive compensation and $20 million in stock buybacks (a technique that can boost share prices), according to the financial reports of the province's three biggest publicly traded long-term-care home companies, Extendicare, Sienna Senior Living and Chartwell Retirement Residences."
Mike Harris' pay at Chartwell
Harris has profited a lot from his part time boardroom-based job with Chartwell. According to the Toronto Star, he was paid $229,500 last year.
The Star also reports that "Harris had more than $7 million in Chartwell holdings at the end of 2019 (its last fiscal year) – including $4.29 million in 'deferred trust units' (akin to shares) that reflect his accumulated compensation over the years (deferred until retirement)." According to the article Chartwell's communications department and a forensic chartered accountant verified these numbers.
Unifor, a union that represents workers at Chartwell, launched a campaign last year calling for better pay for caregivers in Chartwell's homes. "Chartwell pays many of their staff minimum wage," Unifor's website states. "In fact, most of their employees do not receive a living wage. To make matters worse, Chartwell has proposed all minimum wage employees have their wages frozen until 2020. These workers provide care and compassion to residents, work that is so important that the Ontario Labour Relations Board has consistently denied them the right to strike, putting them under the same legislation as other essential service providers, such as hospital workers."
Katha Fortier, a Unifor spokesperson, said it's ludicrous the former premier would make more than $200,000 for his part-time job in Chartwell's corporate boardroom while front line workers in homes are paid "abysmal, poverty wages."
The inability to make a living wage in a home requires many personal support workers to take jobs in multiple seniors' homes. This, and a lack of personal protective equipment, have been cited as key contributors to the deadly spread of COVID-19.
Ford pledges to hold profiteers accountable
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he plans to hold private companies that continued to draw profits while seniors in their long-term care homes lay sick and dying accountable. It's not clear if that includes Mike Harris. In fact, Premier Ford said he was unaware of Harris' connection to Chartwell.
Premier Ford is facing criticism from families, unions, seniors' advocates and other concerned groups. Not only was his government told about the crisis in long-term care before COVID-19 came to Canada and didn't act on it, the government also contributed to the crisis by significantly reducing inspections of long-term care homes, the majority of which are owned by private operators, including Chartwell.
Groups are also accusing the premier of ignoring the lessons we have learned about the risks and dangers of privatization.
Right now, the Ford government is forging ahead with Bill 175, Connecting People to Home and Community Care Act 2020. If it passes, which the Ford government is trying to do at breakneck speed, it will result in the handover of almost all government oversight of home care and care provided in retirement residences by personal support workers (PSWs) to private companies. It will do nothing to address the critical shortage of PSWs or improve their working conditions.
The Ontario Health Coalition has been calling for a halt to the Bill, saying it will impact more than 730,000 Ontarians who use home care services and many thousands more who require community care services. The coalition says the new legislation would allow the Ontario government to make changes without Legislature approval, dismantle all remaining public governance and control of home care and hand it off to provider companies, including for-profit companies, and expand privatization not only of home care, but also potentially of parts of hospital and long-term care. Send Premier Ford a letter on this issue.
Ignoring the harsh lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, including the perils of privatization, is equivalent to telling every person – living and passed – in long-term care and other seniors' homes they don't matter.
In a sad, twisted irony, Mike Harris could reap further benefits from any expanded home care privatization. He and his wife Laura started a private home care franchise in Toronto in 2012.
It's time we take the words "private" and "profit" out of how we care for our seniors.
Photo credits: Image of money from Anita Hart, flickr. Image of Queen's Park from DXR, Wikimedia Commons. Image of Doug Ford adapted from an image by Bruce Reeve, flickr. Image of Mike Harris adapted from an image by Mark Bellis, Wikimedia Commons