Ontario Premier Doug Ford declined to say Wednesday whether the province's newly launched commission into the effects of COVID-19 on the long-term care system would be empowered to make binding recommendations, prompting critics to question the value of the initiative.
The commission, led by a Superior Court justice, is tasked with investigating why nursing homes were hit so hard by coronavirus disease and whether the province did enough to prevent and contain its spread.
"They will conduct as many interviews as necessary. They will require records to be produced and they will summon as many people as they need to until we get down to the bottom of this," Ford said. "No stone will be left unturned, because our seniors deserve nothing less."
The long-term care sector has borne the brunt of the pandemic in Ontario, with 1,844 residents and eight staff members having died of the virus as of Wednesday.
Ford announced in late May he would expedite the commission after soldiers who were deployed to several facilities detailed conditions that included insect infestations, aggressive resident feeding that caused choking, bleeding infections, and residents crying for help for hours.
Allegations also included failure to isolate COVID-19-positive patients and a host of hygiene issues involving everything from contaminated catheters to dangerous pressure ulcers.
The province later took over management of several facilities.
Ford sidestepped questions Wednesday about whether commission recommendations would be binding.
"We'll take them up on it," he said. "On top of that, we aren't just going to sit back. We're going to continue improving the system."
That's simply not good enough, said NDP legislator Gurratan Singh, who is calling for a full-scale public inquiry.
"It's a more open system," he said. "It's a more accountable system and a more independent system that the people of Ontario deserve right now."
The commission will be led by Frank Marrocco, associate chief justice of the Superior Court, who was the province's lead counsel in the inquiry into the Walkerton water crisis in 2000.
The two other commissioners are Angela Coke, a former senior executive with the Ontario Public Service, and Dr. Jack Kitts, former head of the Ottawa Hospital.
"The commissioners of Ontario's Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission are honoured to start our important task today," they said in a statement. "We will be doing this work very quickly as the entire health-care system prepares for a possible second wave of COVID-19."
Their report is due at the end of April.
Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer for the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario, said she hoped the government won't use the commission as an excuse to delay changes that could happen immediately.
"Front-line workers have been ringing the alarm bells for over a decade," she said. "Our loved ones can't wait until next April for a report to be issued. There are changes that are needed now and they should be implemented."
Of utmost importance, Rennick said, was an increase in staffing levels.
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents most nursing homes across the province, said it welcomed the details of the commission.
"We are encouraged that it will look at a broad range of long-standing and systemic challenges including staffing, infrastructure and labour relations," CEO Donna Duncan said in a statement. "It is vitally important to ensure systemic issues are addressed."
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said neither a commission nor an inquiry is necessary to make those changes given that a variety of inquiries and reports over the past two decades have raised the staffing issue.
"Everything that is to be known about what went wrong during the first wave of the pandemic is well-documented and researched," Grinspun said. "What is now needed is absolutely urgent action."
Story by Nicole Thompson - The Canadian Press