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Sandra Kang, holding a photo of her grandfather, Jong Kil Kim, stands in front of her home in Toronto, on Dec. 10, 2020.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Sandra Kang is fighting to salvage all the things at her 103-year-old grandfather’s nursing home that bring him comfort: the Korean corn tea served at every meal, music from his East Asian country, personal support workers who speak his mother tongue.

Jong Kil Kim moved to the Rose of Sharon Korean Long Term Care home in Toronto two years ago, when his Alzheimer’s disease and dementia made it difficult to look after himself and speak in English.

But his nursing home, the only one in Canada exclusively dedicated to serving the Korean community, is facing an uncertain future. The Ontario government is reviewing a proposal to transfer its operating licence to a for-profit, chain operator with no ties to the Korean-Canadian community.

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More than 26,000 people have signed an online petition Ms. Kang started 2½ weeks ago that calls on the government to block the transfer of the home’s licence to Rykka Care Centres LP.

The government gave the public until Dec. 14, to comment on the proposal. During a recent public consultation, members of the Korean-Canadian community and advocates for not-for-profit care raised concerns that Rose of Sharon’s focus on Korean food, language and culture would be lost under new owners.

The pandemic has compounded those concerns. Rose of Sharon has kept the coronavirus at bay, with not a single case of COVID-19 among its staff or its 60 residents. Managers and staff at the home closely followed the spread of the virus in South Korea early this year and began using masks and other personal protective equipment well before they were recommended in Canada.

Three of the 11 homes Rykka owns, by contrast, have been hit hard by the virus. The federal government deployed the Canadian Armed Forces to two of its Toronto homes in the spring – Hawthorne Place Care Centre and Eatonville Care Centre – where 93 residents died of COVID-19. At Anson Place Care Centre in Hagersville, Ont., 38 per cent of the 61 long-term care residents succumbed to the virus.

“I was shocked when I heard about the outbreaks at Rykka,” Ms. Kang said during the public consultation, according to a recording of the two-hour conference call obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The stakes are enormous, not just for Rose of Sharon itself but for the future of Ontario’s not-for-profit long-term care sector. If the government approves the transfer, it would be the first time a for-profit company in Ontario has taken over the operating licence of a not-for-profit home. The transfer would also undermine the province’s own legislation governing the sector.

Lisa Levin, the chief executive officer of AdvantAge Ontario, a group that represents municipal and not-for-profit long-term care homes in the province, is urging Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton to ensure that Rose of Sharon remains not-for-profit.

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“It is essential that action is taken now to stem any further erosion of the sector,” Ms. Levin says in a letter to Ms. Fullerton.

Forty per cent of the province’s 633 homes are not-for-profit or municipally owned.

The Long-Term Care Ministry has not said when it will make a decision. “We are aware of the community’s interest in maintaining the home’s cultural designation once the licence is transferred,” spokesman Rob McMahon said in an e-mail.

The Long-Term Care Homes Act says the government is committed to promoting “the delivery of long-term care home services by not-for-profit organizations.” The act allows a not-for-profit home to be transferred to a for-profit operator only in the event of a receivership.

Rose of Sharon has been in receivership since 2011, when construction was almost complete on the 12-storey building that now houses the facility. The initial plan called for devoting three floors to the long-term care home and leasing the remaining space to members of the Korean community as retirement residences. The project ran into financial difficulties as a result of the latter.

Deloitte Restructuring Inc., Rose of Sharon’s court-appointed receiver, got six offers for the nursing home in 2019, including $7.1-million from Rykka, the highest bidder, according to court documents.

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The sale is conditional on the government transferring the operating licence. Deloitte says in the documents that it awarded the home to Rykka because its partner, Responsive Management Inc., has “significant” experience in the long-term care sector.

Rykka got into the sector in 2010 by purchasing a group of homes – including Eatonville, Hawthorne Place and Anson Place – operated by Hamilton, Ont.-based Royal Crest Group from its court-appointed bankruptcy trustee.

The second-highest bidder for Rose of Sharon was the Arirang Age-Friendly Community Centre, a not-for-profit organization that develops health programs and services for Korean seniors and their caregivers.

Donald Kim, a physician and board member of Arirang, said the organization put in a bid for $6.5-million, which was above market value.

“We were confident if we put in a competitive bid we will win it,” Dr. Kim said in an interview. “Somebody who has absolutely no ties to the Korean community coming in and trying to grab it I think is morally wrong.”

Julia Shin Doi, a lawyer and vice-chair of Arirang, said during the public consultation that the Korean community has supported Rose of Sharon socially, mentally and financially. “The community will not support Rykka,” she warned.

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Nicola Major, a spokeswoman for Rykka and Responsive, said in an e-mail to The Globe that the companies are committed to working with the community to resolve any concerns. “Most importantly,” she said, “we will be relentless in ensuring that the culturally sensitive initiatives that are in place are maintained.”

Ms. Kang said the home’s cultural traditions are essential to her grandfather’s well-being. After years of witnessing his decline, she said, “it was miraculous to see what a difference Rose of Sharon made to his health and his quality of life.”

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