Published Telegraph journal September 21, 2015 Retiree an unlikely hero in battle for seniors rights

71-year-old Cecile Cassista took on big government and won by not being afraid to ‘shake the tree’



She is being hailed as a hero, but 71-year-old Cecile Cassista says her successful standoff with the New Brunswick government over nursing home costs really boils down to not being afraid “to shake the tree.

”It has been more than a week since Premier Brian Gallant said he was hitting the “reset” button on his government’s contentious policy, announced in last spring’s budget, to make wealthier seniors dip into their financial assets to pay for nursing home care.

The plan stirred up deep resentment among New Brunswick’s older population, and leading the charge to have it scrapped was the determined and fearless Cassista, the executive director of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents’ Rights.Cassista, a former negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers, said in an interview on Sunday that she knows about organizing people and she also knows when people are getting a raw deal from politicians looking to cut costs on the backs of the vulnerable.

She said she was concerned when she moved back home to New Brunswick over a decade ago after living in Ontario and Manitoba for 42 years.“I had seen things done differently,” said Cassista, who lives in Moncton.“

But here, people seemed very complacent. They don’t want to shake the tree a little bit. There is fear, perhaps fear of reprisals, and I think people need to get over that. People need to mobilize.

They need to tell their government what is wrong, and government needs to listen.”Although Cassista returned to New Brunswick officially retired, she almost immediately began battling for seniors rights.

The situation for seniors needing long-term care in the early 2000s was grim in New Brunswick where assets, including homes and income, were used to assess nursing home payments, and many seniors were facing impossible costs.

She was appalled when she heard about the case of Rachel Bourgeois of Riverview in 2003 who received a government bill for $188,000 in the mail shortly after her husband, Abb, died in the hospital.It was policy in those days to charge New Brunswickers a daily fee while they were in hospitals awaiting transfer to a nursing home, a fee which Mike Murphy – then an opposition member – called “an arbitrary penalty for being old and sick.

”The Seniors’ Coalition was formed in 2004. Ultimately, nursing home policies changed under the former Liberal government of Shawn Graham, who said costs would be based on income only, as they are in most other provinces.

That policy did not change until the Gallant government attempted to bring liquid assets into the calculation, and that is when it ran into the brick wall that is Cecile Cassista.

“It was a completely unfair and regressive policy,” she said, adding she was never going to back down from her opposition to the plan.“Seniors felt betrayed. It had not been mentioned during the election campaign, in fact Brian Gallant said he wouldn’t touch anything, and there had been no consultations before it was simply dropped on the population.

I was in a state of shock.”Cassista quickly shook off the shock and she and the coalition started organizing meetings from Saint-Quentin to Saint John. Hundreds of seniors attended and complained about having to give up savings they had worked for all of their lives, and which many hoped to leave to their children.“When this fight started, I saw people moving away, going to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia,” she said.“It really touched me.

My own uncle on the island said,‘Why are you taking on this fight? Why not come over to P.E.I. and live with us?’ It was tempting. But I said to my husband, ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’ I can’t leave. I’m committed to the community.

”Since the Gallant government backed down, Cassista has been lauded in social media and the media.Former Liberal MLA and recent New Democrat candidate Abel Le-Blanc labelled Cassista a hero to the province’s seniors in a commentary to the Telegraph-Journal.

“This honourable lady is a hero in my eyes,” LeBlanc wrote.“She has created one of the largest movements in this province since the early 1990s.”Cassista has also been flooded with congratulations on Twitter.
“Congratulations! You did it!”wrote Catherine MacNeil.“I think the work and leadership you have demonstrated here is amazing.

An inspiration to all of us!”Green party Leader David Coon added “Congrats et félicitations to Cecile Cassista and all the seniors who worked so hard to reverse the asset grab.

“Congratulations Cecile Cassista and seniors for this victory,” read the Progressive Conservative opposition’s
Twitter account.Cassista isn’t done yet.

She said her age has never been an issue.“I’m almost 72 but I feel 45.”She said she is still being invited to meetings around the province, including in Miramichi and St. Stephen in the past few days, where people are hoping to copy her winning formula in their battles with government over closures and cost-cutting.“

There is a lot of frustration out there and I think it will take some work to mobilize people,” Cassista said.“I am seeing pockets of it, but I think we will see more of it as a result of seniors leading the way on the asset issue.”