Buyer beware: Opticians not regulated in N.W.T., Nunavut, Yukon

The three territories are the only place in Canada where opticians — people who fit eyeglasses and contact lenses prescribed by medical professionals — are not regulated.

3 territories only jurisdictions in Canada where opticians aren't regulated

The three territories are the only place in Canada where opticians — people who fit eyeglasses and contact lenses — are not regulated. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

It's a case of buyer beware for those buying eyeglasses in the North.

The three territories are the only place in Canada where opticians — people at eyewear shops who fit the eyeglasses and contact lenses prescribed by medical professionals — are not regulated.

In the provinces, all opticians must take courses, pass a national exam and be licensed. They are a self-governed profession, where licensing, standards of care, complaints and disciplinary action are administered by members of their profession. It's the same system used by doctors, lawyers and other professions.

But in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon, anyone can call themselves an optician, whether they have any education or training in the profession or not.

'An unwritten rule'

One Yellowknife optician said there's "an unwritten rule" that opticians in that territory must meet the standards set by the College of Opticians of Alberta.

But the president of the Alberta college says his organization has no authority to regulate opticians in the N.W.T.

"There's a distance delivery course out of NAIT [the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton], and then they would take the national accreditation exam," said Scott Smith.

"They're members of Alberta, but at the same time, as I said, Alberta doesn't regulate Northwest Territories opticians."

Regulation of opticians is left up to each province and territory, and rules vary from province to province.

In British Columbia, for example, people are allowed to fit and sell eyeglasses without any training. But, unlike the North, they can only call themselves opticians if they are licensed by the College of Opticians of British Columbia.

"If you want to be sure you're getting eyeglasses that are dispensed to standards and by someone who has had training in this area, then you would see an optician," said Connie Chong, executive director of the B.C. college.

Chong says when people hear someone describe themselves as an optician, they assume they have some qualifications.

"That word has a connotation with the public. Being an optician means that you're a health professional, that you're trained, that you're held accountable and that you practise to standards," said Chong.

"So when someone sees an optician for eyeglasses they have certain expectations as a patient, versus if you go to see Joe down the street who is not licensed, that's more of the buyer beware."

Smith and Chong say badly fitted eyeglasses can cause headaches, blurred vision and eye strain.

"For contact lenses, it's not one size fits all," says Chong. "For example, an optician contact lens fitter would need to measure their patient's eye to figure out the curvature and diameter to make sure the person is a good candidate for contact lenses."

Requirements in the contract?

CBC wanted to find out if there were any requirements for training included in contracts the N.W.T. government enters into with businesses, on behalf of the Federal Non-Insured Health Benefits program, to provide eyeglasses to First Nations and Inuit.

No one at the N.W.T. health department was able to say whether the contract requires that those fitting the glasses be trained.

Yellowknife-based Family Vision currently has the N.W.T. contract. Polar Vision, based in Yellowknife and Iqaluit, has the contract to provide and fit eyeglasses to Inuit in Nunavut.

The manager of Polar Vision is licensed by the Saskatchewan College of Opticians to fit both eyeglasses and contact lenses. He said three opticians at Polar Vision recently wrote the national exam required to become opticians in provinces.

According to the Alberta College, four people working at Family Vision qualified as fully licensed opticians in April. Three people listed on the company's website as "travelling opticians" appear to have not taken the NAIT course and are not listed on the Alberta college's registry. The owner of Family Vision says they no longer work for the company.

Polar Vision is the only optical centre in Yellowknife recognized by the Opticians Council of Canada.

CBC requested an interview with N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy for this story, but neither he nor anyone in his department was available.