The union backing Canada's public employees is launching a nationwide effort to transform long-term care into a publicly funded, universal health care system in the midst of a pandemic it says has exacerbated problems in facilities across the country and led to the deaths of thousands of residents.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents 65,000 long-term care nurses, aides and dietary, cleaning and administrative staff — is ramping up previous calls to overhaul Canada's system in a new campaign intended to educate the public and capture the attention of federal politicians.
"Right now, long-term care in Canada is a patchwork system with no national standards," said CUPE national secretary-treasurer Charles Fleury in a news release. "It's time to fix that."
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit long-term care facilities across Canada, with approximately 80 per cent of deaths related to the disease occurring in seniors' homes. Some employees are dealing with shortages of protective equipment and low wages, while others have contracted the disease themselves.
The Canadian Armed Forces has also sent more than 1,250 personnel to assist seniors' homes in Quebec and Ontario, which have experienced significant outbreaks.
The crisis has prompted federal and provincial politicians alike to confront the state of elder care in Canada.
In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country was "failing" its older population, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford called Canada's existing system "broken."
WATCH | Trudeau on federally regulating long-term care:
Members pushing for national standards of care
CUPE is planning to ask its members working in care homes to send their appeals directly to the federal government and hopes to target the prime minister and individual MPs through a letter-writing campaign.
The impetus behind effort is the union's belief that improving elder care will be top of mind for voters in the next federal election.
In a letter addressed to Trudeau and other federal party leaders last week, CUPE National president Mark Hancock called for long-term care to be regulated under the Canada Health Act, the federal legislation responsible for publicly funded health care insurance.
The union also implored leaders to set aside dedicated funding to the provinces and territories through the Canada Health Transfer and wants to see the implementation of national standards of care.
Long-term care is a provincial responsibility, and the majority of facilities are public, non-profit or a mix of the two. Less than 40 per cent of residences are privately owned, which operate on a for-profit basis.
Eliminating the for-profit ownership of homes is another element of CUPE's strategy.
"We believe long-term care should be a core, publicly delivered health care service, like visiting a family doctor or staying in a hospital, in part because the profit motive negatively impacts working conditions and quality of care," the union said in a statement to CBC News. "Valuing profitability of care over quality of care is what got us into this situation."
For-profits not the problem, private home owner says
But the pandemic caught all types of residences off guard, said Paul Arbec, the vice president of the association representing Quebec's private long-term care residences.
Arbec, who also leads a health care group that owns 16 private care centres across Quebec, said the lack of testing in his province and reduced access to protective equipment was largely responsible for the outbreaks that have devastated some of Quebec's facilities.
He also rejected the notion that residences built on for-profit models result in lesser conditions for residents and staff.
"Profit is made on the real estate and room and board side of things and does not in any way hinder direct care to the residents," Arbec said.
However, he added that he was not opposed to private homes receiving subsidies, stating that both models work better in tandem.
"Having private partners in a public system has managed to keep the public system as efficient as possible, as there remains a healthy competition," Arbec said.
CUPE plans to launch its campaign Monday.