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People place a sign translating to 'Protect our Seniors' outside Maison Herron, a long-term care home in the Montreal suburb of Dorval, on April 12, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The results of the 2018 Quebec election left many Canadians outside the province scratching their heads. Despite producing a strong economy, record low unemployment and a juicy budget surplus, the governing Liberal Party experienced its worst defeat since Confederation.

Many analysts outside the province inevitably saw in the election of François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec the same populist wave that had then been sweeping over Europe and the United States. After all, Mr. Legault came to power by promising to cut immigration levels and implement a ban on the wearing of religious symbols among some public sector employees.

Yet, while both of those ideas were extremely popular among francophone voters, they alone could not explain why Quebeckers rebuked the Liberals so harshly. To really understand why voters turned on Philippe Couillard, who won a big majority in 2014, you needed to have been following a series of horror stories unfolding in the province’s overburdened health care system.

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Those stories involved emergency departments in which patients often spent days on stretchers, people who endured months- or even years-long wait times to see a medical specialist, burned-out nurses who pleaded publicly for relief and thousands of Quebeckers could not find a family doctor.

Nothing provoked citizen outrage, however, more than the countless stories recounting the inhumane conditions at Quebec’s publicly funded long-term care homes. Mr. Couillard and his in-your-face health minister, Gaétan Barrette, were widely accused of sacrificing the province’s most vulnerable citizens on the altar of deficit reduction. Residents at the province’s more than 400 long-term care homes (known in French as Centres d’hébergement de soins de longue durée, or CHSLD) had been reduced to one bath a week from two, and were fed a diet of instant mashed potatoes and other insipid fare low in nutrients, but cheap and easy to prepare.

Almost no Quebecker could be indifferent to these stories. With the country’s most rapidly aging population outside the Atlantic provinces, Quebec has been experiencing a surge in demand for long-term care. The province’s antiquated CHSLDs often resemble asylums. The thought of one day ending up in one of them depresses countless Quebeckers in their prime.

During the 2018 campaign, Mr. Legault, a former Parti Québécois health minister who founded the CAQ in 2011, seized on the discontent and promised a revolution in seniors’ care. One of the CAQ’s signature promises involved gradually replacing the province’s network of CHSLDs with small-scale Maisons des ainés (the term itself sounded pleasant) in which residents would be treated to attentive service, private rooms (with air conditioning!), lush outdoor gardens and healthy meals.

Mr. Legault called his plan “the project of a generation” and even recruited a former Liberal minister responsible for seniors, Marguérite Blais, who in a previous career had been a popular television host, to lead the initiative. Mr. Legault promised that 30 Maisons des ainés would be built during a first CAQ term and that all CHSLDs would be replaced by 2038.

The tragedies now unfolding at Quebec’s long-term care and seniors’ homes, where COVID-19 has so far taken the lives of more than 900 residents, makes Mr. Legault’s election promise sound like a cruel joke. His government has yet to break ground on a single Maison des ainés, while thousands of CHSLD residents suffer from intolerable neglect.

Since taking office, Mr. Legault’s government has increased public spending on seniors, but the increases have largely gone toward home care and tax credits for Quebeckers caring for a senior family member. The province’s March budget allocated $140-million over two years to create 900 CHSLD beds and $100-million over five years to improve the quality of CHSLD meals. But with more than 3,000 seniors on waiting lists for a CHSLD bed, the additional funding is inadequate to meet demand. It would do little to improve living conditions at CHSLDs.

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Until the carnage unfolding within dozens of CHSLDs began dominating the news cycle in Quebec, Mr. Legault had been riding an unprecedented wave of popularity for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his image has taken a hit in recent days. He moved to limit the damage by taking “full responsibility” for failing to move earlier to boost the unattractive wages for personal support workers that have left most CHSLDs with severe staff shortages.

But his attempt to shame medical specialists idled by the postponement of non-urgent procedures into helping out in CHSLDs smacked of improvisation, creating more problems than it solved. (The same can be said for Mr. Legault’s request on Wednesday for Ottawa to send 1,000 additional soldiers to work in the province’s long-term care homes.)

Still, Mr. Legault has been profoundly shaken by the CHSLD horror stories documented on his watch. “It’s not acceptable, the way we treat our seniors in Quebec,” he conceded last week. If that spurs him to action, perhaps some good can come of this tragedy.

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