Canada has been struck by its share of national tragedies in the past 50 years, including the Westray mine explosion, the Edmonton tornado and, most recently, the train explosion in Lac-Mégantic. But one type of disaster has been more prone to repeat: fire in seniors’ residences. The fire in L’Isle-Verte, Que., is the fourth since 1969 to have killed more than 20 people. There are 32 dead and missing, an entire town is in mourning, and once again questions are being asked about the lack of regulation to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens. L’Isle-Verte is proof that Canada has not come to grips with the risk of fire in seniors’ homes – a risk that is becoming more acute as our population ages.
First, the history. In 1969, a fire in a seniors’ facility in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Que., killed 54 people. In 1976, 21 people were killed in Petty Harbour in Newfoundland. And in 1980, 25 more died in a fire in Mississauga. There have been smaller fires in homes across the country that have claimed additional lives, but in spite of all these calamities, seniors’ residences in many parts of Canada are still not required to have sprinkler systems, or to be built from fireproof materials. They don’t even have to work out evacuation plans with the local fire department.
The federal government has standards for the construction of new seniors’ homes that call for sprinkler systems and fireproofing, but this is largely a matter in provincial jurisdiction. The result is a hodge-podge of rules. Ontario requires new homes to include sprinkler systems and is forcing older ones to be retrofitted over time, but, in Quebec and some other provinces, building a wooden, multistorey building with no sprinklers that houses dozens of senior citizens with varying levels of mobility is still allowed.
It’s an invitation to disaster. And the odds of more such disasters occurring will increase between now and 2030, when one in four Canadians will be over 65 and the number of people over 85 will have tripled. To meet the demand, provincial governments are relying on private facilities to fill the gaps in their long-term care systems, which is why some of them have been lenient when owners have lobbied against expensive retrofitting and higher construction costs. If the costs to the homes go up, the owners say, so will the costs to the residents.
It is a complex problem, but the question is this: Does Canada want to continue be a country where seniors die in a horrible manner that is easily preventable? L’Isle-Verte is the moment for all provincial governments to toughen their regulations and bring them into line with reality.