Special Report: COVID-19

Public Inquiry vs. Independent Commission

The Ontario government has announced an 'independent commission' into the state of Long Term Care homes, but only a legally-defined public inquiry can provide the transparency and accountability this crisis demands.

By Eric Coleman
Published June 02, 2020

The Ontario government has announced it will be launching an 'independent commission' into the state of long term care (LTC) homes in Ontario.

If you're out of the loop, a report was recently made public from the federal government, based on the experiences of armed forces support in five LTC homes through April and May. That report found a truly horrific laundry list of deficiencies and unsafe conditions in every home they were deployed to.

I won't go into the details here, but suffice to say, it was a troubling and scandalous report for this government.

For several weeks, since it became clear that LTC homes were a significant hotspot for COVID-19 transmissions, hospitalizations, and deaths, the media and the public have been pressuring the government for a public inquiry into the matter, and how things could explode so readily in these homes. Doug Ford's announcement is a step in the right direction, but isn't going far enough.

It comes down to the difference between a "public inquiry" and an "independent commission".

A public inquiry is a specific legal mechanism, codified in provincial law (as well as federal law). I'll try not to get too far into the weeds, but a public inquiry is independent from the legislature and has legally-protected powers to gather information.

The inquiry commission is established through the office of the Lt. Governor, so exists independently of any control or influence of the legislature. It has powers to compel testimony at hearings, gather documentary evidence, and execute search warrants, in order to gather all necessary information. The law also protects those who testify before the inquiry. And, most importantly, the proceedings and results are public.

An independent commission, conversely, has no such powers, responsibilities, or protections, inherently. It's not a defined legal term or process.

As such, it doesn't inherently have any powers to compel evidence or testimony, no built-in protections for those who testify, no guarantees that the hearings or conclusions will be made public, and, as it's commissioned by the legislature under their rules, no guarantee that it is functionally independent and non-partisan.

As Victoria Gibson on iPolitics.ca writes:

"A key difference between public inquiries and government-led reviews, according to experts who spoke with iPolitics last week, is the control the governing party is able to exercise over the information scrutinized and released to the public. Reviews were noted to be a potentially cost-effective mechanism, with the potential to move quicker and align with government priorities. Inquiries, meanwhile, were seen as a way to evade government influence and conduct a more thorough review."

Ontario's government needs to launch a proper investigation into LTC homes, and that means a proper public inquiry. This inquiry will dispel any perception of deflection or obfuscation of the truth.

It may paint their government in a bad light, but they need to be able to face that and the results. Anything less is cowardly, and a gross disservice to the people in our care who suffered through this crisis.

Eric Coleman is a chef, artist, and writer who has lived and worked across Ontario, from Stratford, to Toronto, Hamilton, Muskoka, and further afield.


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