In Debate: Speaking in favour of C-36 on Elder Abuse

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel.

Bill C-36 deals with the complex and challenging subject of elder abuse. It is difficult to paint elder abuse with one brush because it comes in many forms: physical, sexual, financial and psychological. The scale of the abuse can vary dramatically. It can be something that has been happening over a lifetime or occur when a senior becomes frail and vulnerable. The source of the abuse can be caregivers, spouses, children or even strangers looking to take advantage of a vulnerable, lonely person. Often the abuse is hidden, not spoken of, and this is a great tragedy.

One program or one measure cannot address the varying needs of our older loved ones who are suffering from abuse. We need a comprehensive plan that will address the needs of all seniors and in particular those who are being abused.

That being said, I want to speak in support of Bill C-36. The bill is not perfect but it is a step in the right direction. New Democrats had proposed something similar to this in the 2011 election campaign and I am glad to see that Conservatives are taking some of our suggestions.

However, what we had proposed to tackle elder abuse was a complete package, some points of which we see in the bill. We need something more comprehensive, including an elder abuse hotline; the creation of elder abuse consultants, modelled on a Manitoba government initiative; and changes to the Criminal Code of Canada to ensure appropriate sentences for perpetrators of elder abuse. This package would involve working with the provinces in order to develop, implement and fund such proposals.

Unfortunately, Bill C-36, as it stands, will not have the desired impact on reducing elder abuse without the other steps that need to be taken. By merely adding on to the Criminal Code an aggravating factor for sentencing when a crime impacts someone due to their age and other personal circumstances, we are missing an important opportunity to create a system of support for seniors facing abuse.

The key to addressing elder abuse in Canada is not stiffer sentences but addressing the root causes. The best way to combat elder abuse is to give seniors control over their own lives and ensure they have the finances to live in dignity. I have been listening to seniors and meeting with seniors organizations. I have heard over and over again how there is a desperate lack of funding for programs and a very real and legitimate fear that Canada is not prepared for the rapidly rising senior population.

The most important issue voiced over and over by seniors is that they want to stay, for as long as possible, in their own homes. They want to be in their communities, near their friends and family. I really do not think this is asking too much. It is very clear that we need a home care plan, a plan that ensures seniors can stay in their homes and that any modifications that need to be done to those homes are available at an affordable rate.

We also need to ensure that seniors can access services without having to travel great distances, especially as mobility becomes more challenging. A network of community hubs would be an effective way to ensure that access is there for them. This would also help combat the solitude that affects so many seniors, especially single seniors or those caring for their partners or another loved one.

Our seniors are asking for affordable and appropriate housing that will meet their needs as they age. As abilities change, our older loved ones need appropriate care within the community or residence in which they live. Access to families and their social networks is key to the health, well-being and safety of our seniors.

In addition to physical security is the need for financial security. Seniors fear losing control over their finances and over their personal choices. Family and those with power of attorney can take control and take choice away. They can, in fact, can take that senior's dignity away.

Our elders can be forced into housing they do not want and can be told to hand over those finances. Too often we allow this to happen for the sake of convenience or for our own fears for a senior's safety. Yet older Canadians should have a say and they should be able to determine the direction they wish to take. This, I believe, is the most important factor in eliminating elder abuse. With control over their own independence and finances, seniors remain in control of their lives, which makes them significantly less vulnerable.

The World Health Organization has recognized elder abuse as an important problem that needs to be addressed. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that between 4% and 6% of elderly people have experienced some form of abuse in the home. The organization argues that a number of situations appear to put the elderly at risk of violence.

In some cases, strained family relationships may worsen as a result of stress and frustration as the older person becomes more and more dependent. In others, a caregiver's dependence on the older person for accommodation or financial support may be a source of conflict and vice versa. Social isolation is a significant risk factor to an older person suffering mistreatment. Many elderly people are isolated because of physical or mental infirmities or through the loss of friends and family members.

In Canada, seniors are most likely to be abused by someone they know. Canadians seem to understand that. In an EKOS survey in 2009, respondents felt that most frequent abusers were a family member other than a spouse at 62%, and paid caregivers in an institution at 46%.

Knowing what we know about elder abuse and its prevalence, I am wondering what the government plans to do to actually prevent the abuse from happening in the first place. We do indeed need a plan to ensure that our seniors are able to live in dignity and have the financial security to make the choices that determine how they want to live their lives. The government did have a program in place, the elder abuse awareness initiative. While not addressing the root causes of elder abuse, it at least attempted to bring the issue to the forefront. However, the program has ended now and we are left only with the bill on the table before us.

I want to make it perfectly clear that the bill alone would do very little to prevent elder abuse in Canada. It is a step in the right direction and I suppose no matter how small that is it is a good thing. However, without other initiatives such as an elder abuse hotline, elder abuse consultants and a strategy to deal with the root causes of elder abuse, I am afraid the bill would only allow for harsher sentencing and not prevent the abuse in the first place.

In addition to the fallacy of harsher sentencing is the reality that abusers are rarely caught. We need better training for police officers to be able to spot abuse in the first place. Seniors are very hesitant to speak of what is happening to them, often because they fear identifying someone in their family or circle of friends as the abuser.

We heard from law enforcement officials that police officers need better training to allow them to secure the trust of an abused senior so that real remedies can be pursued. Prevention should be our first goal. For starters, prevention is much less expensive than the mounting costs of emergency health care, courts, lawyers and jails. Crass numbers aside, our main concern must be for the dignity of human life and preventing anyone from facing the long, hard road of abuse.

We owe it to our elders to ensure they have a retirement that has dignity. They have worked so hard building this country and are continuing to shape its future. How we treat our elders is indicative of who we are as a society. If we treat our elders poorly, then we are doing a disservice to Canada and Canadians. Our seniors deserve better. Our families deserve better.

I thank the House for its time and indulgence this evening and will reiterate what is required: financial security. That means not reducing OAS by eliminating the age of retirement at 65, and introducing affordable home care and accessible long-term care. In other words, it means all of the things that are not happening in this country.

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Ms. Françoise Boivin (Gatineau, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I would first like to thank my colleague, who has also done wonderful work to promote a senior's right to a decent standard of living in our great country.

I agree with everything she said in her speech. She is concerned that this bill might lead to harsher sentences. I would be tempted to tell her about my own concern, which is that Bill C-36 will be a total waste of time and will not achieve its goal. I would like her to comment on that.

The bill talks about a significant impact on the victim. Crown prosecutors will rarely use that section; they will not demonstrate that the offence had a significant impact on the elderly victim. The seriousness of the offence and the fact that it targeted an elderly person will be totally pushed aside, because prosecutors will be unable to prove there was a significant impact on the victim.

It is not worrisome to see another fine effort that will accomplish absolutely nothing, yet again, despite all the work the committees have done on seniors issues?

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:

Mr. Speaker, I am so very afraid that she is absolutely right. We spend a lot time looking at government bills that are meant to keep us busy, meant to create the illusion that something is happening.

The reality is that very few seniors report abuse because they have to live in the home of their abusers. Otherwise, they have nowhere to go because their financial security is such that they are dependent. It may be a child or a grandchild that is the abuser. Seniors are very hesitant to tell anyone that someone that they love and trusted is committing this kind of crime.

Finally, of course, we need to provide the training for police officers so that they can take the time. Seniors do not just call up and say, “By the way I'm being abused”. It takes a great deal of time, trust and discussion between an officer and a victim before anything can be pursued. Therefore, additional sentences just simply are not going to work.

Ms. Alexandrine Latendresse (Louis-Saint-Laurent, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague, who is doing an excellent job on this file.

I very much liked her speech and would like to pick up on one aspect of it that can apply to many issues the Conservatives are dealing with quite poorly, in my opinion.

Once again, we have a bill that deals with a serious issue by targeting people after the harm has already been done. There is no mention of prevention. As my exceptional colleague from London—Fanshawe said a moment ago, one of the best ways to prevent elder abuse is to help seniors stay at home as long as possible, be independent and not have to rely on anyone else. That is one of the best ways to make sure such situations do not arise.

The Conservatives took the same approach with bill C-10, that focused on punishment and added new sections to the Criminal Code. That is all well and good, but should we not spend more time talking about prevention and make it so that situations such as these do not arise in the first place?

I would appreciate my colleague's views on that.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:

Mr. Speaker, my colleague is absolutely right. Prevention has to be at the centre of this because prevention means stopping the hurt before it happens. What would any one of us not give to ensure that a hurt that damages a life never happens? After the fact is too late.

She mentioned prevention in regard to home care. Absolutely, seniors need to have that option. I would like to see the federal government invest in real home care instead of playing around and actually cutting the resources to our health care system, such as $36 billion in the future.

I would also like to see the federal government work with the provinces to start talking about long-term care, the kind of care that we should have in nursing homes. Unfortunately, far too many nursing homes are driven by profit. The care, particularly in Ontario, has declined significantly over the years. That is another form of abuse.