Montreal

As death toll mounts, Quebec Seniors' Minister Marguerite Blais faces a reckoning

There was a rare sighting at the Quebec government’s news conference on Tuesday: Seniors' and Caregivers’ Minister Marguerite Blais, who declared she is now willing to accept “my share of the responsibility” for the ongoing disaster in long-term care homes.

What share of the blame should Blais take for the crisis in long-term care homes?

Seniors' and Caregivers' Minister Marguerite Blais's last appearance at a government news conference was April 13. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

There was a rare sighting at the Quebec government's news conference on Tuesday: Seniors' and Caregivers' Minister Marguerite Blais.

Since Blais's last appearance at a government briefing on the state of the pandemic, on April 13, 1,220 more seniors in provincial care have died of COVID-19.

Even on April 13, it was obvious health officials were struggling to contain outbreaks in government-regulated homes, the long-term care centres known as CHSLDs.

But what has become more evident in the weeks since Blais's appearance last month is the extent of the problems in the long-term care network.

Chantal Grenier, left, visits her 90-year-old mother at the CHSLD Éloria Lepage in Montréal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Dire staffing shortages; patients living and dying in horrendous conditions; safety guidelines going unfollowed — these no longer describe a handful of institutions. They are system-wide issues.

And yet Blais, who shares responsibility for the file with Health Minister Danielle McCann, has been nowhere to be seen. 

'More weepy than accountable'

Amid growing scrutiny and mounting questions, she finally gave a small round of interviews last Friday.

She sought to deflect criticism of her handling of the crisis. Rather than accept part of the blame for the situation in the CHSLDs, she spoke instead of Quebec's "collective responsibility."

This did not go over well. 

Blais may be the foremost champion of elder care in the province, but she's also the person who's had the most time, and power, to make a difference.

She spent five years as seniors' minister in the Liberal government of Jean Charest, from 2007 to 2012. Philippe  Couillard left her on the Liberal backbench, so she retired from politics to care for her dying husband — and edit a book about caregiving. 

She returned to the National Assembly  in 2018, this time when the Coalition Avenir Québec promised to allow her to fulfil her avowed mission: to improve the lives of seniors and the people who care for them.

Blais is now entering her seventh year in charge of Quebec's seniors' portfolio — a point that was raised by several pundits after those interviews on Friday.

Denise Bombardier, a Journal de Montréal columnist normally supportive of the Legault government, suggested Blais's reputation did not align with her ability to get things done.

As of Tuesday, 1,511 COVID-19 deaths had been attributed to people who lived in CHSLDs. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"Why did François Legault let himself get taken in by … someone who's more weepy than accountable," Bombardier wrote in a recent column. 

Others were less nasty, but nevertheless argued it was a mistake for Blais to try to shift blame. 

Bernard Drainville, the former Parti Québécois minister and now popular radio host, thundered to his audience on Tuesday that Blais was a "rock star" among seniors — recounting how Charest used to joke that when he went into a nursing home with Blais, people would flock around her, asking, "Who is that man tagging along behind you?"

But in case Blais was listening, Drainville added: "You've been minister of seniors for almost seven years. Take your share of the responsibility. I'm not asking you to take it all, but ... take a part."

Accepting responsibility, sort of 

Tuesday's news conference, along with Blais's presence there, came as something of a surprise. 

The government initially had no intention of holding a press briefing, and it had already conditioned reporters not to expect Blais to be on hand.

But not only did Blais appear, she also declared she was now willing to accept "my share of the responsibility" for the ongoing disaster in the CHSLDs.

She repeated the premier's avowal that more should have been done sooner to boost the salaries and improve the working conditions of patient attendants, or préposées aux béneficiares (PABs.)

Prior to the pandemic, Blais had been focused on improving the conditions for family caregivers and on redesigning long-term care, rather than on addressing the low pay of patient attendants that work the existing facilities and the resulting, chronic staffing shortage.

Blais, seen here at her swearing-in ceremony in 2018, is entering her seventh year as seniors minister. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

As the provincial public director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, explained on Tuesday, that staffing shortage — exacerbated by the spread of the virus — has contributed to the staggering death toll in the CHSLDs. 

What Blais did not take responsibility for, though, was the years of inaction by previous governments, which allowed the network to become overburdened and unable to provide consistent levels of care.

She laid the blame squarely at the feet of the previous Liberal governments, of which she was a part.

Though she was aware of the staffing problem then, she said, her hands were tied, her suggestions were ignored and ultimately Liberal austerity crippled the system. As a backbencher in the Couillard government, she had little influence.

The last Liberal health minister, Gaétan Barrette, took to Twitter in a no-holds attempt to contest Blais's version of events.

"Marguerite, the Pontius Pilate," said one tweet. "A minister without influence in every government she's served in … no higher salaries since her arrival. No influence."

Barrette, whose centralizing health-care reforms many are also blaming for the current crisis, said Blais never approached him about hiring more staff or paying them more.

Lost in all the bickering: another 76 people dead in a CHSLD in 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,511. 

And the government continues to struggle to meet the staffing shortage in the health-care system, which is now dealing with more than 11,000 absences daily. 

There are plans for the National Assembly to resume sitting next week, complete with question period — the first in almost two months.

Holding the government accountable has been difficult with the legislature on hold and a litany of emergency powers in effect.

But constitutionally, that's where Blais owes her explanations, not to social media users.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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