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Participants react during a vigil for COVID-19 victims at the Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont. on June 15, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government’s plans to override municipal planning powers and fast-track the expansion of a nursing home that was hard hit in the early days of the pandemic have been met with resistance from local councillors.

At an emergency meeting on Monday, the city council in Pickering, Ont., unanimously rejected the province’s request that the city approve a minister’s zoning order (MZO) for the redevelopment of Orchard Villa, a 233-bed facility where 206 residents became sick with COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. Of those, 70 died – the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities at any nursing home in the province to that point.

The Canadian Armed Forces were briefly deployed to Orchard Villa and four other Ontario nursing homes during the crisis. They reported poor infection-control practices, and abuse and neglect of residents.

Councillors said they objected to the provincial government’s failure to consult local residents about the project, which would replace the existing nursing home with a larger one. They also took issue with the short window of time – 72 hours – the city had been given to approve the MZO, which had been drafted by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government frequently uses such orders, which allow property developers to bypass local planning processes. The government typically asks municipal politicians to approve MZOs.

It’s not clear what effect the councillors’ rejection of the MZO will have on the proposed development, or whether construction will commence without the city’s blessing.

Orchard Villa’s owner, the for-profit chain Southbridge Care Homes, has applied for a 30-year license extension for the nursing home. The MZO is the first indication that the provincial government is poised to give its approval.

Pickering councillors expressed dismay that the province is supporting the expansion of Orchard Villa, citing the home’s performance during the onset of COVID-19 three years ago.

“The government of Ontario has a long way to go to regain our trust when it comes to an aging population,” Councillor Maurice Brenner said. He seconded a motion to reject the MZO, after presentations from family members who lost loves ones at Orchard Villa. “We’re not going to roll over and allow these things to happen without a good fight.”

Southbridge asked the province for the MZO. The order would allow the company to build a new 15-storey nursing home with 320 beds on the site of its existing facility, located in a leafy subdivision.

In a letter to the Ministry of Long-Term Care dated Dec. 9, Southbridge chief executive officer Ryan Bell says the company wants to begin construction on the project by Aug. 31. That is the deadline the province has set for nursing home projects to be eligible for a higher-than-normal building subsidy.

This is not the first time the company has applied directly to the province for zoning approval. It has won municipal support for an MZO to expedite building a new 224-bed nursing home in Port Perry, Ont. But many long-term care advocates and local residents vehemently oppose the province’s support for Southbridge’s plans in Pickering.

Cathy Parkes, the leader of a group of families opposing Orchard Villa’s expansion plans, was the first person to address councillors on Monday evening. Before COVID-19 closed the nursing home to visitors, she said, she had lunch every Saturday with her father, Paul Parkes, and his three tablemates. None of them, including her 86-year-old father, survived the first wave of the pandemic, she said.

Even before the pandemic, she told councillors, her father endured inadequate care. On one occasion, a personal support worker injured him while inserting his catheter incorrectly, she said, resulting in an ambulance trip to a hospital.

“The idea that any portion of my taxes will go toward funding a building that creates more profits for Southbridge is abhorrent to me,” she said.

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Another Pickering resident, Abdullah Mir, said he did not have a family member at Orchard Villa. But he wanted councillors to know that he found the MZO to be an affront to democracy. Rewarding a corporation that has brought “untold pain” to the community would be “deeply disrespectful,” he said.

In a written submission to Pickering councillors, Patricia Spindel, chair of the advocacy group Seniors for Social Action Ontario, also referenced the COVID-19 deaths. “You do not need to be reminded of the carnage that occurred at Orchard Villa during the pandemic, nor do you need reminding that the military had to be called in to try to save lives,” she wrote.

Documents tabled at the meeting show that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing wrote to Pickering city planning staff on March 7, asking them to approve the province’s MZO. Pickering staff responded the following day to tell the ministry it needed to submit a formal request to elected councillors.

Instead of appealing to councillors, the ministry sent a draft MZO to Pickering planning staff on April 24 and gave them 72 hours to respond.

Jake Roseman, a spokesperson for Ontario Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra, said in an e-mail that 657 people in Pickering are “desperately waiting” for nursing home beds. “Pickering continues to stand in the way of much-needed additional capacity,” he added.

Southbridge did not respond to questions.

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