British Columbia·Opinion

B.C. needs an independent agency to investigate civil rights violations in long-term care

The biggest problem for citizens living in long-term care facilities is they have no practical way to enforce their civil rights, writes Paul Caune, an advocate for people with disabilities.

Seniors, people with disabilities have rights enshrined in Canadian law — but need a way to enforce them

The biggest problem for citizens living in long-term care (LTC) facilities is they have no practical way to enforce their civil rights, writes Paul Caune, an advocate for people with disabilities. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This is an opinion column by Paul Caune, an advocate for people with disabilities. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The biggest problem for citizens living in long-term care (LTC) facilities is they have no practical way to enforce their civil rights. 

I know because I experienced this.

For two years, I lived at the George Pearson Centre, an LTC facility for people with disabilities in Vancouver, where I did not receive adequate care.

In 2005, I challenged the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority when they told me I couldn't refuse to be moved to the centre. The details of what happened after are covered in the CBC documentary The Golden Rule.

While I'm no longer a resident at George Pearson, it's not surprising to me to see similar complaints at the same facility. For years, residents and their families have fought for better care at George Pearson. It's been a long and frustrating battle that's been made worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My experiences inspired me to co-found Civil Rights Now, an organization that has proposed since 2012 that the B.C. government pass a law similar to the U.S. Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). 

A woman waves to a relative through a window at the George Pearson Centre in Vancouver on Dec. 3, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This law would give an independent government agency the authority to investigate conditions in both public or private facilities for disabled citizens. If justified by the evidence, the agency could bring legal action against the owner of the facility. If a judge is convinced that residents' civil rights were violated, the judge could impose large fines on the owner.

The U.S. Justice Department has successfully used CRIPA litigation since 1980 to force dozens of LTC facilities, prisons and institutions for people with developmental disabilities to stop violating their residents' civil rights.

Canada has no similar law.

Why do we need such a law in B.C.?

B.C. has a long history of abuse in government-run facilities, including residential schools for Indigenous children, and institutions for children with disabilities such as Woodlands and the Jericho Hill School for the Deaf.

Even after these dreadful facilities were closed, vulnerable citizens are still put in danger by the government.

In 2011, the B.C. government acknowledged they were unable to determine the extent to which front-line staff in LTC facilities met their legal obligations to get informed consent from residents or the residents' legally recognized medical decision-makers. 

In 2012, after a long investigation into health care for seniors, the B.C. ombudsperson concluded that the "Ministry of Health does not require care staff to report information indicating seniors receiving … residential care services are being abused."

B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie can only advise the government and make recommendations to it. Paul Caune writes that residents of long-term care need more powers to enforce their civil rights. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Some might say B.C. does not need legislation like CRIPA because the province has a seniors' advocate and the health authorities have patient care quality offices.

But regardless of the findings of any of her investigations, seniors' advocate Isobel Mackenzie can only advise the government and give it recommendations. 

Similarly, patient quality care review boards can only make recommendations — and health authorities have a conflict of interest when they investigate complaints against themselves. 

As for the argument that LTC residents could hire their own lawyers, many simply can't afford to do so.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that every citizen has a civil right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on age or mental or physical disability.  But if a citizen living in an LTC facility has no practical way to enforce this civil right, then they don't possess it.

Those who choose to forget the history of abuse in B.C. government-run facilities condemn vulnerable people to repeat it. We cannot expect LTC facilities to honestly investigate or punish their own abuses of power.

When you're disabled and your civil rights are violated, you don't need a good hug — you need a good lawyer.

Do you have a strong opinion that could change how people think about an issue? A personal story that can educate or help others? We want to hear from you.

CBC Vancouver is looking for British Columbians who want to write 500- to 600-word opinion and point of view pieces. Send us a pitch at and we'll be in touch. Novice writers are also encouraged to submit ideas.


Paul Caune is the executive director of Civil Rights Now and the executive producer of the documentary film Hope is Not a Plan. He is one of the recipients of the 2014 Courage To Come Back Award.


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