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I could hear fear and sadness in my mother’s voice. I had just informed her that Fulford Residence, the non-profit long-term care home – her home – was to close. The news came as a shock; my mother is a blind cancer survivor with complex care needs who expected Fulford to be her last home. Concerned about the prospect of finding dignified, affordable care for my mom, worried about the well-being of the 20 other all-female residents and the heroic staff who cared for them, and unsatisfied with the explanation and impersonal way we learned of the closure – a general e-mail, arriving shortly after a COVID outbreak that claimed 10 lives – I began an effort to try and save Fulford..
What began as a personal effort to keep my mother from losing her home evolved into a three-month community campaign with all the drama (and occasional comedy) of a theatrical play. It is a story of holding private interests accountable, demanding corporate transparency, exposing political hypocrisy, and maintaining values of decency and compassion. In the context of society-wide discussions around dignified eldercare, affordable housing, public vs private interests, and civil discourse, it is a story worth telling.
Hours after the closure announcement on March 1st, I wrote an open letter about what makes Fulford unique – the intimacy of the 19th century house, the personalized care, the home-cooked meals – and that losing this extraordinary model of care would be a preventable tragedy.
With the support of several other Fulford families, a remarkable grassroots coalition was assembled, including seniors’ organizations, heritage groups, minority language advocates (Fulford specifically served the anglophone community), and concerned citizens. Local MNA Jennifer Maccarone and her office also lent tremendous support. Letters were written to Fulford’s Board of Directors echoing our call to pause the closing for six months and to set up a committee of stakeholders to consider options for preserving the home. Media interest was significant, with regular stories appearing in the press. Strangers reached out with words of encouragement. Momentum was growing.
Wanting to offer as much evidence as possible, we released the results of a survey detailing the experiences of families trying to find affordable, quality care alternatives (private homes can cost up to $15,000/ month), the information we were receiving from social workers on the likelihood our loved ones would end up in temporary beds in distant locations, and our frustrations that we were never told of any significant challenges confronting Fulford. We also sought to reinforce how Fulford resembled leading international models of eldercare. Opposition, however, was as fierce as it was unexpected
We therefore sought to engage both the Board and the Church early in the effort to try and preserve Fulford. In all our campaign communications, we remained respectful, noting our admiration for the service of Fulford’s Board members, including its President, Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson.
In a letter to the Board, families asked for the opportunity to better understand the decision to close and to work collaboratively to try and save the home. We also requested the consultant’s report being used as justification for the Board’s decision. In addition, we wrote individually and collectively to the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, Linda Nicholls. Our specific requests to the Board were ignored. In a response letter co-signed by the Bishop, families were implored to “allow management to continue its care without interference”. This followed a letter from Archbishop Nicholls which admonished, “I trust your priority at all times – whether you like the outcome or not – will be the good of the residents and staff.”
The time-consuming campaign began to take a personal toll; it was a distraction from other family duties and professional responsibilities, and the intensity only increased. In an e-mail I was warned by a Montreal-area Anglican Priest that I was risking “embarrassment” by continuing the campaign. I reached out to another local Anglican Priest via Facebook; while my friend request was accepted my polite note was ignored. A staff member at this Priest’s church referred to Fulford as a “money pit” in a social media post.
In published comments to the Globe and Mail, our advocacy was called a “snow job” by the Bishop, who went on to say about my mother being forced to leave her home, “I’m sure she’s afraid…Change is really hard… But some change has to happen.” This was among the most callous statements I have ever read.
With the Board and Church remaining intransigent, we wrote Quebec’s Minister for Seniors, Marguerite Blais, seeking the CAQ government’s help in preserving the home. While Fulford was not a public institution, Premier François Legault had spoken about the need to better protect our vulnerable elder citizens. Unfortunately, the Minister demonstrated the shallowness of the government’s commitment, not even bothering to respond to the families. We only learned the Minister was declining to become involved via the media. Answering a reporter from Toronto apparently took precedence over responding to citizens in Quebec on a critical issue of public health and well-being.
It was only after enlisting the support of renowned human rights lawyer Julius Grey that we began to see progress, at least in terms of our “Plan B” options. Those of us seeking public residences for our loved ones began to be offered beds in homes we had just weeks before been told by social workers would take months or years to become available.
While the closing of Fulford is proceeding, hundreds of Montreal seniors remain on waitlists. The future of the home and property is unclear, but the Bishop is on record saying the option of the home being sold to condo developers is “off the table”. There are heritage, housing, and public interest groups closely monitoring the situation, as are local journalists. I will be watching too.
My mother is adjusting to her now home but carries a sadness that is heart wrenching, and the differences between Fulford and her new residence will be acutely noted by my young son. I am grateful to the kind workers aiding the transition. While regret and frustration remain, the knowledge that this campaign exposed a flawed process and insensitive treatment of vulnerable citizens offers some comfort, with the hope that it will prompt others in positions of power to reconsider taking such actions in the future.
We may not have saved Fulford, but perhaps we shone a spotlight on important values that further the causes of justice, accountability, and dignity for all.
TQPM Post-Script: Reflecting on the local significance of the fight to save Fulford
As a board member at the Table de Quartier Peter-McGill (TQPM) and master’s student in Urban Planning, I – Louis-Thomas Kelly – cannot help but read Christopher Holcroft’s words and recognize that the issues surrounding the fight to save Fulford bear a significance that extends beyond the boundaries of the heritage building on Rue Guy. Vividly, the campaign to save the Fulford nursing home is revealing of pressing, local political concerns within the Peter-McGill district: the campaign to save Fulford represents yet another particular instance of urban development clashing with concerns of social justice. It is uncertain whether civil frustrations ought to be directed towards blatant provincial negligence or geared to municipal abstention, but one thing is for certain: the community sector stands with the Fulford campaign and the fight to save spaces for social services and health care.
If the occurrences at Fulford speak to you personally, feel free to reach out to the Table de Quartier Peter-McGill (firstname.lastname@example.org), or the Fulford campaign’s porte-parole, Christopher Holcroft (email@example.com).