Ontario 'can't ignore' Wettlaufer inquiry recommendations: lead counsel

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Ontario 'can't ignore' Wettlaufer inquiry recommendations: lead counsel

Ontario 'can't ignore' Wettlaufer inquiry recommendations: lead counsel

The lead counsel for the upcoming Wettlaufer inquiry said the commission heard a lot of concern at public meetings held in London and Woodstock this week about staffing levels at nursing homes in the province.

William McDowell was clear that based on these preliminary hearings that no government will dismiss the eventual findings.  

"I don't think that any government could ignore what this commission is going to find."

Former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer pleaded guilty in June to murdering 8 nursing home patients and is now serving a life sentence. 

McDowell was a guest on CBC's London Morning on Friday where he recounted listening to heart wrenching stories about the experience of aging loved ones in care. 

"We weren't gathering evidence, but it was very instructive for us to hear just how people are experiencing having their relatives in these facilities."

"It's jarring to hear the comments first hand."

Starting Point: 'How could this happen?'

McDowell said the starting point for the inquiry is Wettlaufer's offences and the question that everyone has asked since she was charged: "How could this happen so many times, over so many years."

From there, he said, the inquiry will look at what systemic changes might be required.

He conceded it's daunting work but said "you just have to have a work plan and … meet constantly, and you have to keep the thing driving forward."

Asked how the work of the commission could help change what many call a troubled long-term care system, McDowell quoted the famous words of former U-S Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis, who once said sunshine can be the best disinfectant.

Issues to explore

More public hearings will be held in June 2018, but a lot of preparation is required before the inquiry can get underway. 

McDowell said the commission must gather as many as 400,000 documents and conduct more than 100 interviews.

The commission will examine how nursing homes operate, whether they have enough staffing and monitoring, and whether it should be easier for families to access the records of their relatives to determine whether the care they have received is appropriate.

"We haven't made any judgement about these things, but those are the kinds of things that commissions typically look at it."

McDowell said ultimately inquiries such as this one are "a political exercise".  But, he added, if you look back at the Walkerton inquiry or the Maher Arar inquiry, they do lead to significant change.

He said the way information is shared between governments is quite different in the wake of the Arar inquiry. And the Walkerton inquiry led to significant changes in the way water is tested and regulated in  Ontario.

The head of the Wettlaufer inquiry, Ontario justice Eileen Gillese, is to submit her final report by July, 2019.