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Families of Quebec seniors who died in long-term care split on idea of public inquiry

Families of Quebec seniors who died in long-term care split on idea of public inquiry

While some feel only a full public inquiry will get answers, others fear it would be a waste of time

In interview with Prof Mark Winfield

As opposition politicians at the National Assembly unite in calls for a full public inquiry into the deaths of seniors at long term-care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, families of those who died are more divided.

More than 4,000 seniors died in Quebec care homes during the first wave, often alone and in difficult conditions.

All three opposition parties in the National Assembly held a joint news conference Tuesday calling on the CAQ government to launch a full public inquiry. So far, the CAQ government does not appear open to the idea.

Patrizia Di Biase, whose mother survived the rash of COVID deaths at the Herron long-term care residence in Montreal's West Island in 2020, told CBC she supports a public inquiry.

"I like the fact of the pressure. I think it would get more results,"  Di Biase said. "You want for things to get better."

Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer representing some of the families of residents who died, said most of his clients generally support the idea as well.

"It would ensure that it's not something that we will simply forget about, turn the page and not discuss any more," Martin-Ménard said.

Quebec has a chance to change the way these facilities are run, he said, "and we need a public inquiry to move this opportunity forward," he added.

Multiple parallel investigations are either already underway or have been completed.

A coroner's public inquiry has already heard from dozens of witnesses across the province, with more to come in the New Year.

Quebec's ombudsman also investigated the deaths and, after hearing from more than 1,000 witnesses, released her final report with 27 recommendations for change last month.

And Quebec's health commissioner also released a damning interim report into the crisis in September, with a final report expected next year.

Some families say further public inquiry 'waste of time'

Not all family members are keen on yet another inquiry.

Moira Davis, whose father, Stanley Pinnell, died at the Herron residence, noted the coroner's inquiry, which was supposed to wrap up this month, has already been extended several times.

"I was so looking forward to, OK, December, we're going to finally get this over with,"  Davis said in an interview with CBC Tuesday.

"We can finally, like, shut that door and start moving on," she added.

Davis has been unimpressed with the testimony of public officials at the coroner's inquiry, saying they either give incomplete answers or shift blame to someone else. She doubts a public inquiry would be any different.

"I don't understand why the opposition thinks that if we change the name of this pig and put some lipstick on it, it's going to be different responses from the provincial government," she said.

Peter Wheeland, whose parents both survived the first wave in Herron but have since died, also felt a further inquiry would be a "waste of time."

"Personally I've had enough of looking back at what went wrong. We need to look forward and to prevent worse things from happening in the future," Wheeland told CBC in an interview Thursday.

Wheeland believes the coroner's inquiry has been so thorough that her eventual recommendations will be "like a bible" for how to operate in the future.

Davis said she believes that once the coroner's inquest is complete several families will file lawsuits, and that's where real justice will be served.

Public inquiry could be broadcast live

A public inquiry would likely see much of the same evidence and hear from the same witnesses who've already testified or spoken to investigators.

Martin-Ménard said such an inquiry would have the same powers to subpoena and cross-examine witnesses as the current coroner's inquiry has.

But he said a public inquiry could have a broader scope and, more significantly, the testimony could be broadcast.

While members of the public can follow the coroner's inquiry online by clicking on a link on the coroner's website, media are strictly prohibited from recording or broadcasting any of the testimony.

"It's a much bigger impact hearing something directly or being able to watch something over a longer period of time as opposed to reading a summary," Martin-Ménard said.

He noted that when Quebec all-news networks broadcast live the hearings of Charbonneau commission into corruption they got good ratings, and the story was in the headlines for months.

Expert says public inquiries 'part of the healing process'

Mark Winfield, head of the joint program of law and environmental studies at York university, has participated in and written about public inquiries.

WInfield was an expert witness at the Walkerton inquiry into the fatal contamination of drinking water. He also wrote a report on the lack of a public inquiry in the case of the rail disaster at Lac-Mégantic that killed dozens of people.

Mark Winfield, an expert on commissions of inquiry, wrote a report on the lack of such an inquiry into the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Megantic. Winfield believes such inquiries are part of the healing process for families of those who died. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Winfield said coroner Géhane Kamel should be commended for pushing the mandate of her inquiry as far as she can.  He said Kamel's inquiry is the most thorough of any in Canada so far. But Winfield thinks a provincial commission of inquiry on long term care homes in Quebec could go even further.

"It's part of the healing process in these kinds of tragedies," Winfield told CBC.

Public inquiries have broader mandates than coroner's inquiries and greater powers to subpoeana more complete documents, including cabinet documents, he said.

The coroner's inquiry in Quebec so far has been limited when it comes to documents and questions subject to cabinet privilege.

Winfield noted in the case of the Lac-Mégantic disaster there were several parallel investigations including ones by the coroner and the Transportation Safety Board. But he said an enormous amount was lost in not having a public inquiry.

"For the victims it took away the validation and recognition of the scale of the tragedy," Winfield said.

"With just those investigations you're left with an incomplete picture. They're fragments," he said. Winfield said the tragedy at care homes deserves a full public inquiry.

"The scope of the disaster is so enormous you could make a compelling argument," he said.

The Lac-Megantic rail disaster fell under federal jurisdiction, and so ultimately it was Ottawa's decision not to convene a public inquiry.

MNAs in the National Assembly, including then Opposition Leader François Legault, voted unanimously in 2018 to call on the federal government to launch such an inquiry.

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