The Canadian Seniors Care Home Scandal – A Catalyst for Change?

Four years’ ago this week, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, declared to the world that the Optional Protocol would no longer be optional for Canada in the future, a full decade after Canada had originally hinted it would ratify the instrument in 2006.

Put it down to forgetfulness, institutional amnesia or even just debilitating procrastination, Canada has yet to make good on its stated commitment to finally put pen to paper at UN headquarters in New York and ratifying the instrument.

In so not doing, Canada may well have succeeded in setting a new world record for the longest OPCAT ratification process in the instrument’s history – at least for an advanced democracy – trailed in close second by the Republic of Ireland (which has, if nothing else, signed the instrument).

No other contenders for the record come to mind. On the other hand, quite a few other countries who lag significantly behind Canada in overall human rights terms have done so – long ago even. Argentina, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Serbia and Tunisia spring immediately to mind.

Guinness World Records 2020 – Debbie Harris (2019).

Over the years there has been no lack of international encouragement for Canada to make good on its commitment to ratify the OPCAT, not least by the UN Human Rights Council and UN Committee against Torture in 2018.

After undertaking fact-finding missions to these Canadian shores, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities both urged Ottawa to ratify the instrument in their 2019 reports.

So what goes on in Ottawa? Frankly, probably very little it would seem. The Canada OPCAT Project’s repeated attempts to elicit even a single atom of information about the not-on-going OPCAT ratification and consultation process through Access to Information & Privacy (ATIP) requests have proven largely ineffective.

A December 2019 ATIP request seeking clarity about whether Global Affairs Canada (supposedly the lead OPCAT ratification agency in Canada) had liaised with civil society groups on the ratification of the instrument since Canada’s examination by the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva in November 2018 has, to date, gone entirely unheeded.

The current Covid-19 emergency will undoubtedly squelch any remaining hope, no matter how dim, of ever receiving a reply to this eminently reasonable request.


Yet just look 360 degrees about you. If there were ever a time when effective, robust oversight of Canada’s closed institutions were needed, then that moment is right now.

The current Covid-19-related crisis in Canada’s long-term care homes for seniors is a sadly illustrative case in point. So far, fingers tightly crossed, the coronavirus health crisis has not severely afflicted the Canadian prison system in terms of fatalities. In stark contrast, however, private and state-run care homes for seniors have been utterly ravaged by the virus.

Unfathomably, seniors have been dying in scores in the very facilities designed to care for them. The sheer daily number of news entries listed in the COVID-19 Deprivation of Liberty Corner, reporting the appalling deaths and infection rates of society’s seniors, is a reflection of the current, depressingly critical situation.

Watch For Senior Citizens – Ethan Prater (2008).

Yet where are the rugged, independent mechanisms pointing the finger at and holding these facilities to account?

Is it entirely accidental that these most lightly regulated of institutions have fared so poorly in dealing with the existing pandemic? If the current death rates had plagued Canada’s prison estate, there would have been a unshakable national scandal by now, and rightly so.

Yet where is the seething anger regarding how Canada’s seniors are being treated?

Robust, independent oversight is not a panacea to society’s closed institutional ills, even more so at moments of public emergency like the present. Yet it is a pretty decent start.

It can ensure that the human rights and dignity of persons found therein, whether they be senior citizens, migrants or prisoners, are observed during both the best and worst of times.

If there is nothing like a raging public row to clear the air, then that moment is arguably the present. Increasingly thunderous calls for change in how senior care is operated in Canada should result in a complete overhaul of the private and public long-term care system for the elderly, resulting in sweeping change which incorporates robust, independent oversight thereof at all jurisdictional levels.

The OPCAT human rights instrument could be a key component of this much-needed change-process.

Sidewalk Reassurance – Travis Wise (2020).

From an OPCAT perspective, the question of whether senior care homes fall within the scope of OPCAT Article 4’s definition of deprivation of liberty has long been settled. Furthermore, the highly respected European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has been visiting care homes of different types for many years as part of its core detention monitoring mandate.

In August 2019 leading Australian academic Laura Grenfell made some excellent arguments why seniors’ homes fall squarely within the scope of OPCAT Article 4 in a journal article titled Aged care, detention and OPCAT, featured in the Australian Journal of Human Rights. The latter journal has devoted invaluable space in recent months to the important issue of OPCAT implementation in Australia, several articles from which have been highlighted in the OPCAT Academics section of this website.

In the said article Professor Grenfell underpinned the crucial importance of independent oversight of senior care facilities, as follows:

Current federal and state schemes for the monitoring and oversight of closed aged care facilities are inadequate. This is largely due to the hodgepodge of standards and existing inspection bodies’ lack of expertise. It is critical for civil society to encourage government to adhere to and resource best-practice OPCAT monitoring for aged care facilities where people are detained in closed units. Monitoring by NPM teams using rigorous and nationally consistent human-rights-based standards will allow the risks facing a vulnerable group of people – who, in SA ICAC’s words, ‘lack any voice themselves’ and are ‘entirely dependent upon others for their care and their safety’ (South Australian Independent Commissioner Against Corruption 2018, 190) – to be assessed. People who are deprived of their liberty in closed aged care units are in a vulnerable position and are at a disproportionately high risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Closed units in aged care facilities should not be allowed to fall under the OPCAT radar.

What has come to pass in Canada’s long-term care facilities for seniors can never be allowed to happen again. The need for robust regulation and effective, hard-wearing arms-length oversight of such institutions should be the catalyst for a long overdue, re-energized national discussion on the ratification and implementation of the OPCAT in Canada.

As opposed to further OPCAT procrastination, Canada should strive to be a world record-breaker in how it treats its senior members of society as a barometer of its commitment to everyone’s human rights – the young and the old. After all, we are all headed in the same direction. The effective implementation of the OPCAT could make a decisive contribution to this overarching process.

Yet with the ratification of the OPCAT being entirely a figment of someone else’s imagination in Canadian government circles these days – or seemingly so – something fundamentally needs to change in Ottawa’s corridors of power.

Four further years of OPCAT procrastination, after the country’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs very publicly committed to OPCAT ratification, is nothing to be proud of. In view of the current seniors care homes scandal, sitting on one’s hands no longer remains an acceptable national policy option.


Read Laura Grenfell’s article, Aged care, detention and OPCAT in the Australian Journal of Human Rights.

Explore other academic articles in OPCAT Academics.

Learn more about the OPCAT ratification process in Canada.

Find other materials on Covid-19 and detention.