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This fall, David Carkeek sent The Globe’s B.C. legislative reporter, Justine Hunter, an email raising an alarm about conditions at the Nanaimo seniors home where his mother lived. His mother had moved into the Nanaimo Seniors Village in the spring of 2018 and at the time, he said, he was assured that the facility would have a minimum of four care aides for every 20 residents.

But Mr. Carkeek, who visited the facility every evening to feed his mother, said in his estimation, that number had declined by the time she died last month.

At the same time as Mr. Carkeek was noticing deteriorating conditions at the home, the Vancouver Island Health Authority had also become concerned. Following an internal investigation, the medical health officer, Dr. Paul Hasselback, found that significant problems at the facility had emerged over the summer. In a report last month, he concluded the operator “has been either unable or unwilling to meet the minimum requirements.”

The Nanaimo facility, as well as the Comox Valley Seniors Village and the Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria are among 20 B.C. properties owned by Retirement Concepts. Justine reported this week that the three have been placed under outside management, an extraordinary intervention that comes two years after Ottawa approved the sale of the company to a Beijing-based insurance-holding company.

Anbang has snapped up companies and properties around the world. It has faced repeated questions in the United States about who actually owns the giant firm and what ties it has to the Chinese state. Accountability became more opaque in 2018 when the Chinese government assumed control of Anbang.

At the time of Anbang’s purchase of Retirement Concepts, the company and the federal government assured Canadians there would be no deviation of the standard of care.

In an emailed statement, West Coast Seniors Housing Management, which oversees operations on behalf of a number of Retirement Concepts facilities in B.C., blamed staffing shortages across the sector for the issues at its Vancouver Island homes.

“Unfortunately, the entire seniors care sector is currently experiencing a labour shortage, which is having an impact on all service providers – a challenge that has become more significant, certainly over the past year,” Jennie Deneka, chief operating officer of WCSHM, said in a written statement.

When The Globe reported this week that B.C. health authorities had to step in at the three homes, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains – who was responsible for approving the sale of Retirement Concepts to Anbang – said his government has "been up front when it comes to making sure the company respects its obligations under the Investment Canada Act.

"We continue to monitor that and work very closely with the provincial government.”

Except B.C.'s seniors advocate says that’s not possible. Isobel Mackenzie told Justine the way Retirement Concepts keeps its books is so opaque, it would be impossible for the federal government or anyone else to monitor whether the new company owners have maintained staffing levels.

B.C.'s Health Minister Adrian Dix agrees with West Coast Seniors Housing Management that staffing shortages across the sector are a problem.

But Justine has found Retirement Concepts pays its employees significantly less than other employers: It’s tough to attract and retain workers who are in demand if the pay doesn’t keep up.

As for whether the monitoring promised by the federal government has concluded Retirement Concepts facilities are in compliance with the commitments made when its purchase was approved, Justine is still awaiting a yes or no answer from the department.

Writes Gary Mason in a column on the issue today: “The federal government clearly didn’t see the events that followed the Anbang takeover as worthy of its intervention. And hundreds of seniors paid the price.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West:

THRONE SPEECH: Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the Liberal government’s Throne Speech was an “insult” to the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan because it failed to recognize the anger that has resulted from the economic downturn in the region.

ART SPACE: The first city-owned artist production studio has opened in Vancouver, an effort to restore cultural spaces lost because of high rents and redevelopment – including another being forced out later this month. More than 20 artists will work out of the 10,800-square-foot Howe Street Studios, which was provided to the city by Bonds Group of Companies as an in-kind Community Amenity Contribution in exchange for the approval of a mixed-use property that includes a 41-storey residential building.

ALBERTA FINANCES: Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux says he will be monitoring the Alberta government strategy of both cutting taxes and chopping spending, warning such a plan is not necessarily viable in the long term as demands for government services such as health care increase. “If you want to become sustainable, return to a sustainable track, you cannot cut both at the same time,” said Mr. Giroux, who spoke to reporters after a presentation to University of Calgary School of Public Policy students.

RENTER PROTECTIONS: The City of Burnaby has proposed some of the most aggressive measures in Canada to ensure that renters displaced by the waves of development hitting cities can stay in their communities. The proposal would require developers to subsidize higher rents tenants might have to pay when they move out temporarily during construction of a new building and a guarantee that the tenants can move into the new building at the same rates they were paying before.

CARBON TAX: The federal government is giving the Alberta government a passing grade for its industrial carbon tax. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says today his department agrees Alberta’s planned $30-a-tonne carbon price on emissions from big industry meets federal requirements.

OPIOID CRISIS: British Columbia’s annual death toll from overdoses is poised to decline for the first time since the province’s public-health emergency began – but non-fatal overdoses show no signs of abating and health officials say the crisis is far from over. But while overdose deaths are trending downward, overdoses in general are not. BC Emergency Health Services has responded to 22,489 suspected overdose or poisoning calls this year – a figure that has remained consistent for years (22,662 in 2018; 22,441 in 2017).

VANCOUVER BUDGET: A proposal for a more than 9-per-cent tax increase to cover Vancouver’s 2020 budget has sparked public backlash and a promise from many councillors that they will be looking for ways to cut costs. But councillors also say it’s important for them to carry on with significant new programs, such as an overall plan for the city and a big push to reduce climate-change effects.


Kelly Cryderman on Jason Kenney’s change in tone: “There is an uneasy relaxation in fighting words between his government and the federal Liberals as the minority government gets up and running. Mr. Kenney will use this period, what might only be a brief window of time, to try to show a more human face to the bellicosity many in Ottawa associate with his government.”

Campbell Clark on Justin Trudeau’s throne speech calculation: “It is no shock that the imperative of parliamentary survival and the calculations of electoral politics can be heard in this speech loud and clear. Nor is it surprising to hear the government declare that Canadians want action on climate change. They do. Yet it is still striking that in a speech that struck a tone of unity and collaboration, Mr. Trudeau’s government didn’t find a more direct way to try to soothe the frustrations in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Dermot Kelleher on UBC’s decision to admit refugees to its medical school: “Why should a Canadian medical school admit a refugee from Syria when there’s a long line of Canadian applicants? Why should UBC, which relies on taxpayer-funded grants, train doctors who may potentially leave the country? The answers to those questions lie both in the history of medicine and the heart of this country.”

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