From food to frailty: the link between long-term care and land concentration

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Person stands next to elderly person in a wheelchair outside in a field. Image credit: Dominik Lange/Unsplash

As I drive past another Revera long-term care home being constructed in Ottawa's south end, the radio news reporter blares out that the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the worst yet, given the variants. I can't help but feel complicit. Yes -- I feel responsible for some of what is happening to the residents, ill and dying from COVID-19, in these homes.

It's the same way I felt when I wrote a column in November 2019 on land grabbing here in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

What do for-profit long-term care homes such as Revera and land concentration have in common? Both are being impacted by "financialization." And you and I, albeit unwittingly, are a part of it.

Financialization is a term increasingly used to underscore the process by which financial actors -- including hedge funds, private-equity firms, wealthy individuals, and pension funds -- are buying farmland as part of investment strategies.

But the term financialization can also be extended to for-profit long-term care homes.

And therein lies the link between land concentration and land grabbing, and what has become the painfully obvious neglect happening in many for-profit long-term care homes during this pandemic.

But the links between land concentration and retirement homes do not stop with "financialization" -- and this is where you and I become complicit in this horrible scheme of things. It is also where local meets global -- and how our pension-plan management policies are not only harming us here at home, but likely our neighbours around the world.

It is a story of how we are fouling our own nest, and, along the way, the nests of others.

Let's start with Revera.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has launched a campaign with the Canadian Health Coalition and Ontario Health Coalition, calling on the government of Canada to make Revera a public enterprise.

Why would a federal public-sector union be calling for this?

Revera Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Crown corporation Public Sector Pension (PSP) Investment Board, which manages the investments of the pension plans of the federal public service, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Reserve Force.  As such, public sector employees have had their retirement pension funds used by PSP Investments. The pension investment management company is 100 per cent owned by the Canadian government.

Since May 2020, PSAC has been calling on the federal government to put the second-largest network of for-profit long-term care facilities in Canada under public ownership and control. In a statement last spring, PSAC President Chris Aylward stated:

"PSP Investments must respond to the concerns of our members about the safety and security afforded to residents and workers at Revera Inc facilities. In the midst of this unprecedented global pandemic, we should not have to convince PSP of the value of working to ensure safe services to the Canadian public and fair compensation and working conditions for workers in the facilities."

Revera is a privately owned Canadian operator of long-term and retirement residences. According to its website, Revera owns or operates more than 500 properties in Canada, the United States and the U.K. In Canada, Revera has 186 managed communities, 225 owned communities and 22,500-plus managed units.

Many seniors' homes are seen as unsafe for both seniors and workers these days. And while Revera is in the spotlight, it is not the only for-profit seniors' care corporation deemed unhealthy. But it is the only one owned by a Crown corporation. 

As part of its response to the pandemic and conditions in the seniors' housing which it operates, Revera has published a report produced by an advisory committee titled "A Perfect Storm." While the pandemic has brought to light the conditions in many long-term retirement homes across Canada, Revera had more than 85 lawsuits filed before the pandemic by families calling for accountability regarding negligence toward retirement residents.

And since the pandemic began, other class-action lawsuits are now underway.

Revera's track record on health-related issues is in question. And this for-profit company is part of the financialization or portfolio acquisition by public-sector pension investments. Basically, through the Canadian federal government, we own Revera, since it is owned by public-sector pension money and the Canadian government. Now you see why I feel complicit, and so should you.

This is one story of pension-fund investments gone bad -- but there are others. There is investing in frailty, and there is investing in agriculture.

The PSP Investment Board's website details many other similar retirement facilities owned by PSP Investments around the world. Review the page and scroll down to the map -- and you will get the picture. The map outlines retirement properties owned by PSP Investments around the world, from Canada, to Mexico, Brazil, the U.K., and South Africa. If Revera is acting this way in Canada, what might conditions be like in other countries? A Canadian Crown corporation should be trying to achieve a good reputation, no?

So how does this link to land concentration and land grabbing?

Just as PSP Investments is diversifying its assets by buying real estate and retirement communities here and around the world, it is also bulking up on farmland and agricultural operations through its natural resource acquisitions. And it is buying and investing in places like Hawaii, Australia, Brazil, Chile, the U.S., and Canada.

Again -- here is a webpage with a map noting where PSP Investments has holdings in agriculture and timber.

So what could be more solid as an investment than for-profit long-term care facilities (particularly when publicly run facilities are so scarce), along with investments in productive farmland or food-growing operations? That's sound management of assets, one might say. In just over 20 years these public-sector pension investments' net assets have grown from $2.5 billion to close to $170 billion in 2020, as documented in annual reports.

On the one hand, community pension fund investments are squeezing profits from elderly clients and staff, and on the other, these same pension fund investments are driving up the price of land in rural communities, making it hard for residents and young people wanting to farm. This type of speculation drives up the price of land beyond the reach of family farmers. And as noted in earlier columns, PSP Investments has been accused of land grabbing in other parts of the world.

It's time to question the policies that govern Canadian pension fund investments. We have to question the ethics of pension investments that profit from the elderly, from underpaid staff, or speculation in agriculture and land, and lead to fewer family farmers and land concentration.

The campaign by PSAC and Canadian and Ontario Health Coalitions highlights the need to bring Revera under public ownership and control.

It also forces us to think about our pension funds more generally, and how these should be invested to promote community and health (not undermine it) here in Canada and elsewhere.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image credit: Dominik Lange/Unsplash

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