Human rights group alleges Indigenous seniors neglected at Slave Lake continuing care facility

An Edmonton human rights group is calling for a public inquiry into Points West Living continuing care facilities in Alberta following a consultant's report that alleged residents are being physically, emotionally, and culturally neglected at a Slave Lake facility.

Coalition for Justice and Human Rights says it hired an independent consultant after complaints

The president of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, Renée Vaugeois, says her organization hired a Cree consultant to observe Points West Living's Slave Lake continuing care facility after learning of complaints about the quality of care there. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

An Edmonton human rights group is calling for a public inquiry into Points West Living continuing care facilities in Alberta, led by Indigenous community members, following a consultant's report that alleged residents are being physically, emotionally and culturally neglected at the company's Slave Lake facility.

For months, the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, working with community advocates, has been documenting instances of what it said was neglect and substandard care in Slave Lake continuing care facilities after "hearing these stories of Indigenous seniors who are very isolated and marginalized in these care facilities," president Renée Vaugeois said.

Vaugeois said staff from the town's Native Friendship Centre who visited Indigenous seniors in the town's care facilities say they found unsanitary conditions, with some seniors in emotional and mental distress, unable to access food or sometimes even communicate with their caregivers because they could no longer speak English.

Early this year, the coalition asked an independent Cree consultant to, for a day, observe the conditions at the local facility run by Points West Living after hearing several complaints from the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre.

Points West Living operates 11 continuing care facilities across Alberta.

"It is my personal opinion that the elderly at Points West are being neglected; not being properly cared for and loved," consultant Darlene Auger concluded in her report, which was submitted May 28. "It is a shame that we allow our vulnerable seniors to be treated this way, to use them as a business commodity."

Auger's report "all just reaffirmed what we had heard from Friendship Centre staff about people who are being left in very unsafe conditions, often very unsanitary conditions," said Vaugeois, who also leads the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights.

"I think with (COVID-19), everybody is aware of what is happening in care facilities, but I think what people are not aware of are those that are kind of even more isolated and are more voiceless in the system," she said.

Calls for more staff, better food

The coalition is calling for an immediate public inquiry and review of Points West Living facilities, led by Indigenous community members.

It also wants the company to immediately increase staff at its facilities so there is one caregiver for every three residents, prioritize hiring of Indigenous staff who can speak the languages of the residents, and ensure access to "nutritious, culturally appropriate food" for Indigenous seniors.

Lastly, it says the provincial government should create a program that allows Indigenous community members keep seniors at home, with access to aids and supports.

Vaugeois said the coalition will send its findings to several provincial government ministers, including Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon.

Points West Living declined an interview request. In an emailed statement, the company said, "These are serious allegations which we will be reviewing immediately, starting with a review of the consultant's report, which we have not yet received."

"The health and safety of our residents, their families, and our employee care partners is our top priority," spokesperson Mark Dixon said. "Points West Living Slave Lake is a licensed community that complies with all required standards, policies, and procedures.

"We are subject to inspections at least annually, achieving 100 per cent compliance with our most recent Alberta Health inspection for Accommodation Standards and Resident and Family Council."

The facility currently has 32 residents.

A search of the government's public reporting for continuing care facilities shows Points West Living Slave Lake was found to be compliant with government regulations during a February inspection.

In the legislature Wednesday, Shandro said the health ministry will review the report, and has already been in touch with the coalition to connect them with Alberta Health Services and discuss next steps.

He defended Points West Living after NDP seniors and housing critic Lori Sigurdson asked if he supports the coalition's call for an independent inquiry.

"I won't have this operator, or our continuing care providers in the province in general, being attacked by the NDP for their own political reasons," Shandro said.

"We take the report seriously. But this is a good system, including all of our independent providers in this province. This is a good facility and a good operator."

Shandro said Alberta Health Services officials visited the facility Wednesday for a routine audit, which had originally been scheduled for later this month.

Ongoing trauma from residential schools

In her report, Auger said she visited the facility on Feb. 5 with a seniors worker from the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre. At one point, she visited an elderly acquaintance who suffers from dementia and asked the woman's sister about her care.

"She informed me that there is only one staff person working on the floor at every shift and her sister is often alone in her room as she is unable to walk on her own," the report said.

On another unit, Auger said she spoke to several seniors in Cree, who remembered her and knew her family.

"One by one, they confided in me that they did not like it there and wished they could go home," she said, adding the situation was so difficult to witness that she had to leave momentarily.

"These seniors suffered at Indian residential schools as children," Auger said. "They were abused, improperly fed, and could not speak their native tongue. This situation seemed to replicate that nightmare for them."

The consultant, Darlene Auger, concluded that residents at Points West Living Slave Lake were being neglected. (Points West Living)

Auger said the facility's menu for the week included a lot of "low-grade" pub food like hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers and potato wedges.

"Not all of it was bad but I did not see one single serving of Cree cultural foods on the menu," she said in the report. "The majority of the seniors residing there are Cree folks.

"It is important to understand the seniors are not children or teenagers — these kinds of foods do not appeal to them and some seniors with dentures cannot even eat these kinds of foods."

Complaints to management unanswered: advocate

Many anecdotes from Auger's report echo what the executive director of the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, Barb Courtorielle, told CBC News she had personally observed at the facility.

Courtorielle said she started going to the facility — almost every day for seven-and-a-half months in 2017-18 — to look after a family friend.

She said sometimes she would be in the ward for more than an hour and not see any staff. Courtorielle started bringing bannock and stew for her friend and other Indigenous residents, who she said could not eat some of the food the facility served.

"I started asking why there was only one person on duty all the time," she said. "The only time that I saw more than one staff member was if somebody got hurt there; they would call the management and they would come running in there with extra staff."

She said she often smelled urine and feces coming from some residents' rooms. One time, she said, a senior fell off his bed and cut his forehead open. 

"It was almost a half-hour before anybody attended to him," even though he was crying and yelling for help, she said.

Courtorielle said she got facility staff to come and assist the resident.

Some Indigenous residents were unable to speak to their caregivers because they only spoke Cree, she said. Courtorielle said she repeatedly complained to management about the issues she witnessed but nothing was done.

Eventually, she stopped going to the facility.

"I couldn't take any more," she said. "I had to leave."

Push for action

Auger's report documents her encounter with one particular resident.

"A couple of the rooms I went into were dirty; floors were sticky, beds were clearly not wiped down and neither were the bathroom(s)," Auger's report said. "One room in particular was bare and smelled of strong urine.

"The gentleman had been in his bed all day. When I went to speak to him, he was so relieved to learn that I could speak Cree," her report said. "He asked for water and I went immediately to get him (some); he was so thirsty."

Auger said the man's son soon arrived and she asked him about his father's care.

"He shook his head and proceeded to tell me that several times he has complained about the lack of care he feels his father gets there," the report said. "He told me that his father had fallen once on his way to the bathroom and could not get up and he lay in his urine all night long on the cold floor."

"He said that he comes as often as he could to bring his father food and clean clothes," the report continued. "He wishes that he could take his father home but there is no one at home to look after his father while he goes to work."

Facility resident Joseph Auger died earlier this week at the age of 93 after suffering a fall. (Submitted by Clifford Auger)

The resident, 93-year-old Joseph Auger (no relation to the consultant), died earlier this week after suffering a fall.

Clifford Auger confirmed to CBC News what he had relayed to consultant Darlene Auger, and said he only learned of his father's ordeal on his room's floor after he asked a facility employee about a small head injury his father had sustained.

"I have been asking them to get more workers so these elders can get the care they deserve," he said, but a manager told him that was not possible due to budget constraints.

Auger said he welcomes a review of Points West Living facilities.

"I don't want to see another elder going through what my father was going through," he said.

Vaugeois said while the coalition is not directly linking Auger's death to the quality of care he received from Points West Living, his death spurred the organization to release its findings now and push for change.

"We have to really ground in the reality that these Indigenous seniors, the First Peoples of this land — our treaties have been broken, and we owe it to (them to) really make shifts to this community to heal, and to meet the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Vaugeois said.

Beyond that, she said, "it is just about human dignity, really, at the end of the day."

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Jennie Russell

Investigative reporter

Jennie Russell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Jennie specializes in accountability journalism and her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Contact Jennie at jennie.russell@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @jennierussell_.