Former Quebec health minister Danielle McCann testified today that cuts from the previous Liberal government may have hampered the ability of local health agencies to ensure that seniors' residences were prepared for a pandemic.
McCann told a coroner's inquiry into the deaths of seniors at long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic that local health agencies were ultimately responsible for their residents' health and safety.
The inquiry is looking into the thousands of deaths that occurred in seniors' residences in the spring of 2020.
McCann is the only elected official who will testify before the inquiry, where she's being forced to defend the province's preparations for the first wave.
A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, McCann was replaced as health minister by Christian Dubé. She is now the province's higher education minister.
At the beginning of her testimony McCann told coroner Géhane Kamel that the inquiry's work was "very important" and that she would answer all questions.
McCann says local agencies were responsible for pandemic prep
During McCann's testimony Kamel at one point noted that most long-term care homes weren't ready when the pandemic hit.
"Whose responsibility was this?" Kamel asked.
"The CEOs," McCann replied, referring to the heads of local health agencies across the province.
"The CEOs had to put the plan in motion and provide for all the components that are included in the plan, to have the equipment," McCann testified.
"They were well placed to redeploy resources from other sectors of their agencies," she continued.
Liberals' health reforms blamed
Kamel also noted previous testimony from front-line health-care workers in long-term care residences, who said they didn't get much guidance or training at the height of the crisis, and that there was no clear "chain of command."
McCann said she too had heard that from workers on the ground.
"The fact that there wasn't a sufficient hierarchical level of manager who was dedicated to these CHSLDs was a major factor for me," she said.
But McCann said the previous Liberal government was to blame for that.
She said that when Liberals reformed the administrative structure of the health-care system in 2015, they cut 2,000 mid-level manager positions.
McCann said those managers could have filled the void that contributed the miscommunication and lack of leadership in long-term care homes during the crisis.
Warning email lost in bureaucratic shuffle
McCann was also asked about when she first became aware of the serious problems at the Herron long-term care residence on Montreal's west island.
McCann said she first learned of staff shortages on March 29, 2020, when the local health agency (the CIUSSS) intervened to take control of the residence.
McCann testified that in the days that followed there was a lack of co-operation from Herron's owners, in that they were refusing to share patient records with the CIUSSS.
And she testified — as previous witnesses have — about a discrepancy in the number of deaths reported at Herron, saying she only learned April 11 that 31 residents had died, far more than the ministry was aware of to that point.
The lawyer for the inquiry, Dave Kimpton, then showed McCann a copy of an email addressed to her from Herron's owners dated April 9, 2020.
The email was a plea for help, and an offer to co-operate fully with the CIUSSS. It also referenced the fact that the owners were aware of 23 deaths at that point.
McCann testified that she didn't remember when she first saw that email, but it wasn't until days later, sometime after April 11.
She said it was sent to a general email address in her office, and that she believes one of her staff forwarded the email to the office of the minister responsible for seniors, Marguerite Blais.
Blais was supposed to testify at the inquiry, but when she took sick leave last month, McCann replaced her as a witness.
'Disgusted' with blame game
After her testimony, McCann spoke with reporters at the Quebec city courthouse where the inquiry is taking place and vaunted the CAQ government's response to the crisis.
"We saved many lives with the actions we took," McCann said."Everyone did everything they possibly could for seniors in CHSLDs."
Moira Davis, whose father, Stanley Pinell, died at Herron during the first wave, had a different view.
Davis said she was "absolutely disgusted" with McCann's testimony.
"I'm very, very, very sick and tired of how every witness is playing pin-the-blame on somebody else," Davis told CBC in an interview Thursday.
She said from McCann on down, most of the witnesses at the inquiry have suggested that someone else was to blame for what happened.
"Nobody's said 'yeah, we really screwed this up'," Davis said.
Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer representing six families of other residents who died in long-term care homes, said McCann was right that local health agencies failed in planning for the pandemic, but he says her government was equally to blame.
"Four thousand people died, and all the witnesses just launch the ball back at each other," Martin-Ménard told reporters after McCann's testimony.
"It's extremely worrying that neither the health agencies nor the Health Ministry has enough introspection to recognize their mistakes and to learn from those mistakes," Martin-Ménard said.