It’s time to move forward

May 16, 2024
Man looking away from camera.
A UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons is vital to ensure that the rights and well-being of older adults — in Canada and internationally — are protected.

Ask Margaret Gillis why a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older Persons is necessary in Canada, she will rhyme off a handful of reasons right off the top of her head. Although ageism was always there, she says the pandemic showed its impact on older people, whose death rate was the highest among Canadians. Then there was the “heat dome” in British Columbia, where two-thirds of those who died were older adults. And Gillis notes we mustn’t forget Ontario’s More Beds, Better Care Act, which allows the government of Ontario to “ship,” in Gillis’s words, residents as far as 150 kilometres away from their home, without their prior approval, or face steep fines.

Gillis is the founding president of the International Longevity Centre of Canada and president of the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance of 16 countries. She has been working since 2015 to get this convention accepted by member states of the UN, and feels it’s needed in Canada.

“The original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Canadian — John Peters Humphries,” she says. “But because of the demographics of the 1940s, age was never mentioned. We want a convention that actually addresses age and ageism. Although we have those rights in the constitution, they aren’t applied. We see the convention being a second set of laws that will bring governments to look at how we can ensure those rights.”

The other benefit is that it gives civil society organizations such as Federal Retirees a chance to voice complaints about actions taken by countries that have the convention in place. Every five years, the governments of member states would have to appear in front of the Human Rights Tribunal and defend what they’ve done to strengthen the rights of older people. Civil society organizations can also present.

“We’ve seen it work very well for women and other groups, to see these rights move forward,” Gillis says.

Canada’s position

The Canadian government isn’t on record as supporting the convention but did, in 2018, say it will “leave the door open” for one. Six years later, groups such as Gillis’s could be forgiven for thinking that door is easing itself shut.

Given Canada’s continuing lukewarm reception to the idea, the non-governmental organization (NGO) community has formed the Canadian Coalition Against Ageism to secure grassroots support for the convention. The level of interest is high. Last year, one-third of the new applicants to attend the convention discussions at the UN were Canadian.

That 2023 Canadian NGO contingent included Federal Retirees. The Association is also a founding organization of the Canadian Coalition Against Ageism.

"Currently, there are no international, universally applicable standards to protect the rights of older persons," notes Federal Retirees CEO Anthony Pizzino. "As a result, millions of older people are living without access to the social and health services they need, and facing discrimination based on older age. And Canada hasn’t been immune to those issues."

According to Federal Retirees, a convention would protect the rights of older persons, recognize the valuable economic and social contributions older persons make and provide a comprehensive and coherent framework for a world free from ageism and age discrimination.

“This seems like a straightforward idea for any country that claims to have the best interests of older people at heart,” says Pizzino. “That Canada remains noncommittal is puzzling to our organization.”

Adds Gillis: “We are making a stand, and our minister at the time — Kamal Khera — and our UN ambassador Bob Rae both mentioned at the UN that Canada is seeing a lot of support from internal organizations.” But governmental support hasn’t followed suit.

“I spoke with [current Seniors Minister] Seamus O’Regan on Feb. 29 and he repeated the same line — ‘We’re open to it.’ It’s a bit perplexing when we have one of the world's longest progressive governments and Canada has a history of supporting human rights at the United Nations, that they haven't picked this up.”

When the Association asked O’Regan’s office the question, the answer that came back was: “Canada continues to engage in discussions on the UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons with stakeholders and partners both in Canada and internationally.”

O’Regan’s office did say that in a related move, it’s working on establishing “strict new penalties” under the Criminal Code, “backed by a definition of elder abuse,” to make sure it’s understood that those who abuse elders are criminals.

Philippe Poirier-Monette, special advisor in government relations for the Réseau FADOQ, a Quebec seniors organization, agrees it doesn’t make sense.

“Canada has a long history of defending human rights,” Poirier-Monette says. “Canada has an opportunity to push member states to adopt this convention.”

For her part, Gillis says her group has received “namby pamby answers” as to why not, but she says O’Regan at least promised to look into it.

“I guess we must take him at his word,” she says. “But the decision rests with the cabinet. He has to convince his cabinet colleagues and the prime minister to support the convention and, so far, they have not.”

By proponents of the convention, Canada is currently listed as a country that isn’t supporting the convention because until it’s a definitive yes, it’s considered a no.

Costs of saying yes

Gillis suspects that Canada is wary of signing because the convention will ultimately mean costs insofar as improving the long-term care system or making sure there’s no prejudice in the health-care system such as was seen during the pandemic.

“It’s training, it’s organizational change,” she says. “Because we’re going to put their feet to the fire.”

Some of those changes would need to come to Indigenous communities, as Ovide Mercredi, a former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and an ambassador for the ILC, told interested parties at the UN last year when he participated in a panel about the rights to health for older persons.

‘[Health care in Canada is] universal for some, but not for everybody,” Mercredi said. “Many elders who require medical assistance are required to leave their communities and go to far-away places, where there are no relatives around and in some cases where people don’t speak their language. And many of them die there.”

Mercredi shared that racism exists in Canada and said he’s experienced it. For example, he said, there’s virtually no long-term care for First Nation elders because facilities don’t exist in their remote communities. While he noted that the UN has a declaration of Indigenous rights, it is not a convention.

“With respect to the Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, I see an opportunity here to protect Indigenous people,” Mercredi told the audience.

Ageism’s cross-sectional relevance

Ageism is an unconscious bias that governs the way people think, feel and behave towards older people. It’s traditionally not overt, but it became much more explicit during the pandemic when people started not getting hospital beds or ventilators on the basis of age, says Dr. Kiran Rabheru, a retired professor of psychiatry and geriatric psychiatrist who spent his career caring for older people and studying their issues.

“During the pandemic, they were being neglected, abused, marginalized or deprived of liberty — they weren't getting the care because they were old,” Rabheru says.

Around the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its Global Report on Ageism, and Rabheru realized ageism was key to the puzzle.

“It became very evident that [ageism] is the social disease that's affecting our society, that's leading to all these different manifestations of marginalization, making people invisible, voiceless, unheard. Nobody includes them socially or politically. Because it's the ageism that's underlying, if you dig two or three layers down.”

The WHO report determined that one in two people are ageist — including older adults themselves in what’s called self-ageism.

Rabheru says ageism can be fought on three fronts: First, by improving education; second, by promoting intergenerational activities and third, by changing policy and laws in every sector. Rabheru, who chairs the board of the International Longevity Centre Canada, says at the international level, the world needs the Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, and at local and national levels, grassroots groups have to work to mobilize individual sectors to change their approaches.

For governments that are worried the convention will cost them too much, Rabheru points to dozens of clinical studies that show physical and mental health is much worse when someone is exposed to ageism. And then there’s its financial costs. A study by the Yale School of Public Health and published in the The Gerontologist found that the financial cost of ageism in the health-care system was $63 billion annually in the U.S.  

“It also showed that, if you can reduce the level of ageism, you can reduce the cost and improve people’s health,” Rabheru says.

Extra protection for older adults

Marta Hajek, CEO of Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario, says a convention would give older Canadians “an extra layer of protection.”

“[When it comes to] older adult issues, whether health care, social justice, housing, there is no language that protects the rights of older persons,” Hajek says. “Having a legally binding mechanism, like the UN Convention in place would provide that mechanism, that extra oomph or greater leverage to kind of compel people into behaving properly. It's unfortunate that we have to look at it that way, but that's how it is.”

Hajek says older people are often treated as though they’re expendable, not contributors to society and a burden on the health-care system.

“From our perspective, abuse doesn’t need to happen,” she says. “Ageism is at the core of why abuse does happen. If we can tackle ageism with more tangible legal methods like the convention, we can turn this around. We can change what that conversation looks like towards older persons.”

Sayward Montague, Federal Retirees’ director of advocacy, has spoken in favour of the convention several times at the UN.

“Conventions have provided frameworks against which to develop and assess legislation and policy,” Montague said in her presentation last year. “Conventions have served as a catalyst for change and have improved human rights. Conventions are not just slogans, and the absence of a convention directly impacts older persons’ health, prevents their equitable enjoyment of human rights and hinders accountability and progress. It is time to move forward on an instrument that will make the difference, a convention on the rights of older persons.”