Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.
I'm Margaret Gillis, president of International Longevity Centre Canada, which I'm going to refer to as ILC Canada. It's an organization that advocates for the human rights of older people, and we are part of a 16-country global alliance and are partnered with the LIFE research institute at the University of Ottawa.
Attending with me today is Dr. Kiran Rabheru, chair of the board of ILC Canada. He's a professor of psychiatry at the University of Ottawa and a geriatric psychiatrist at the Ottawa Hospital.
We are here today to study our government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many Canadians, I am grateful for the unprecedented teamwork we have seen across party lines here in Parliament, and between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, placing the needs of Canadians before partisan and jurisdictional politics. We are also grateful to have HUMA pause to reflect and seek some initial views from Canadians in response to the COVID-19 crisis; however, this is but a first step in what we believe should be a longer process.
We all know that older people have been the most severely impacted group worldwide in this crisis. We know that the rights and contributions of older people are often overlooked, both in politics and in practice. Canada needs to take a leadership role in rectifying the horrible treatment of seniors during the pandemic through, among other actions, the sponsorship of the United Nations convention on the rights of older persons, which would work towards ensuring that older persons' rights are not ignored.
While it is vital to be vigilant right now, it's premature to think that narrowly focusing on Canada's response in the middle of an evolving crisis will provide us with a full assessment. There will be a need for meaningful and lasting change, and it is probably like trying to build an airplane mid-flight, so we need to continue this and keep it going. We will need a comprehensive process to identify lessons learned, and this process must involve looking at all aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. We're talking here about prevention, preparedness, response, where we are now and recovery.
The challenges we are facing, as illustrated by the systemic problems in long-term care, the rise in elder abuse and the patronizing ageist attitudes towards older people in the press and in our society, have become more visible and urgent during the pandemic. We must embrace this unprecedented reality and boldly move forward to support human rights. We must be jointly accountable for results for Canadians. Instead of pointing fingers, we must all own part of the situation and move quickly to fix it.
We were encouraged by the words of Prime Minister Trudeau when he said, “We need to do better. Because we are failing our parents, our grandparents, our elders—the greatest generation, who built this country. We need to care for them properly.”
Indeed, we do need to do better, and we must find a way forward that reinstates and reinforces Canadian values. It is time to be bold. It is time to embrace the new post-COVID-19 era. Canadians want answers, Canadians need leadership, and Canadians must demand accountability for seniors. Time is everything, and the stars are aligned at this moment for Canada to make the difference.
I would like to use today's discussion to advance ways we can strengthen the rights of older persons to ensure that their lives, health and well-being are not overlooked during and after the pandemic.
As I mentioned, there is no comprehensive, binding international human rights convention for older persons as currently exists for women, children and persons with disabilities. ILC firmly believes that a binding international convention would provide stronger protection for older persons—protections that have been so lacking during the pandemic. We should discuss how a convention could help by examining two important examples of rights: the right to health and the right to affordable, accessible long-term care.
Think for a moment about what we've seen in the last few weeks: older people left to die in their beds without medical assistance, dealing with a virus that results in tremendous suffering; or older people dying of dehydration or malnutrition, or being left in filthy beds. How can this cruel and unthinkable treatment be happening in Canada?
Who can forget the images of family members standing outside long-term care facilities, hoping to get a glimpse of a loved one whom they have not heard about for days, only to hear that they have been abandoned and left to die, unaided, in this most horrific manner?
Is Canada a country that leaves its most vulnerable to die, a country that has left a system so incapable of handling a crisis that it has to rely on the army to rescue vulnerable people? Where are the human rights of those people?
Ask yourself also if we would allow this to happen in our schools, our day cares, our hospitals or any other institution. There's a very basic lesson here, and it is that human rights cannot be an afterthought in a pandemic, or ever. Human rights need to be front and centre in all that we do.
According to the latest data, 79% of the deaths in Canada during the pandemic have occurred in long-term care. We need to call this for what it is: a human rights violation, which is reflective of systemic ageism and the devaluing of importance in contributions of older Canadians. While we can all claim to be saddened over the loss of lives, not many of us can say we are surprised by what's taken place.
You would have to be living in a bubble to miss the multiple reports of abuse in long-term care: the blind 94-year-old woman locked for two weeks in a room full of bedbugs; the sickening murder of eight residents in Ontario, which would have gone on had the murderer not told her pastor; or the multiple reports of choking, beating and neglect that have, in some cases, led to deaths. All these clear human rights abuses took place before the pandemic.
The treatment of older people in Canada is nothing less than a failure of human rights in our own backyard. It is heartbreaking to see how front-line workers have struggled in the most impossible of situations. We need to take steps now to ensure that never happens again.
ILC Canada encourages the Canadian government and all parliamentarians to work together to protect the rights of older citizens by leading the movement for a convention on the rights of older persons. Acting in this manner would go a long way to re-establishing our reputation as a country that values the lives of all citizens. Why? Because a convention would see older persons as rights holders. It would combat ageism. It would allow the public to hold governments accountable for human rights abuses by giving them access to the UN Human Rights Council, and it would educate the public and empower older persons.
A convention would also help to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons. The impact of the pandemic has made it crystal clear that policies and mechanisms currently in place are inadequate and insufficient from a human rights perspective. Such actions have had a severe impact on the lives of older people.
We have all observed the changes in attitudes towards people with disabilities, and in the actions taken by countries that have resulted from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which I'm assuming this committee is very familiar with. We are certain that a UN convention on the rights of older persons would have the same positive influence and impact. We call on Canada to lead the convention in order to foster a better understanding of the scope and meaning of human rights for all people.
This move would be in keeping with the long, proud history Canada has in protecting rights at the United Nations. ILC Canada has been at the forefront of the movement for a UN convention. For the past six years we have been working actively at the UN open-ended working group on aging. In doing so we have continually encouraged Canada to act decisively. In 2018, ILC Canada brought forward a petition to the UN to have Canada lead and support the convention. We were very encouraged when the Canadian delegate to the United Nations announced that the door was open to Canadian support, but unfortunately, there's been no movement since. The door's open, and we're hoping that you will step through.
During the pandemic we began a writing campaign to Ministers Champagne and Schulte, asking that Canada lead and support the convention. Our letter was tabled with the committee today. We have been successfully reaching out to other groups. We have had momentum from public and political support, including from prominent Canadians, such as Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, whose letter of support I've also provided to the committee.
We see the opportunity to speak to all of you today as a great sign that there is an openness to make the needed changes to better the lives of older Canadians. We sincerely and steadfastly hope you will support our call to defend human rights for older Canadians.
Finally, honourable members of HUMA, I would like to leave you with three key takeaways.
One, Canada needs to grow and learn from the treatment of seniors in this pandemic. We need to bring about profound and substantive change to such treatment because there is no best-before date for human rights. They begin at birth and end at death.
Two, Canada needs to lead the development of the United Nations convention on older persons. This convention is about fundamental human rights. It is in perfect alignment with our Canadian values, which we all hold deeply.
Three, time is of the essence. We can’t afford to wait to do the right thing for the human rights of older Canadians. We need to act now.