EDMONTON -- The Official Opposition introduced a new private member’s bill that it hopes will lead to the creation of an independent Alberta seniors’ advocate.

Lori Sigurdson, NDP seniors critic and MLA for Edmonton Riverview, tabled the legislation Thursday that would create an independent office of the legislature to help seniors navigate services and aid offered in Alberta.

The seniors advocate would also provide policy recommendations to government and have the ability to conduct non-binding quality reviews on service providers to better guarantee seniors’ needs are met.

Sigurdson said at a press conference that having a seniors advocate would have helped seniors navigate the pandemic better.

“Seniors have been hit harder by the pandemic than anyone, and I have heard nothing from the UCP loyalist who is supposed to be their advocate,” Sigurdson said. “We need change.”

“An independent advocate would be free to actually drive meaningful change.”

The previous NDP government created a seniors’ advocate as part of its government when the party was last in power.

The UCP abolished the position and merged the portfolio into the purview of the health advocate’s and mental health patient advocate’s offices. Janice Harrington, the former UCP executive director was appointed to the portfolio by the party in 2019.

Seniors have felt the impact of the pandemic more than any other demographic. More than 1,200 seniors in the province who were in continuing care or supportive living sites have died because of COVID-19. In Edmonton alone, 56 of 62 sites have had to manage an outbreak at some point in 2020.

“There needs to be change in how seniors are supported by their government and I hope this piece of legislation can be the beginning of this change,” Sigurdson added.

Rick Brick, a National Association of Federal Retirees district director, said at the same press conference that having an independent office is “critical.”

“If Premier Kenney and Minister Pon had not eliminated the Seniors Advocate in December 2019, that valuable resource would have been there to help elderly Albertans as we are dealing with the COVID pandemic,” he said.

Brick added that back in March he sent a letter to the province asking to meet with them about creating the independent position to advocate for and help seniors.

According to him, Minister of Health Tyler Shandro said the amalgamation of the seniors advocate position within the health and mental health advocate offices would not result in any negative impacts for seniors.

“This move has hurt seniors and their wellbeing,” Brick said. “The reality is that less than 30 per cent of the issues handled by the seniors advocate had a linkage with health. A host of other issues specific to seniors are now invisible.”

British Columbia has a Seniors Advocate that monitors and analyses senior-specific issues in the province to make recommendations to the government and service providers on how to better quality of care. It also helps seniors navigate the different services, program, and aid available.

The B.C. seniors advocate is also investigating outbreaks at seniors facilities and studying the impact restrictions have on seniors.

In the legislature Thursday, Shandro said the government is focused on COVID-19 response and that the NDP simply wanted to create another layer of bureaucracy.

“Government is focused on protecting seniors in the pandemic, vaccinating them as fast as possible, supporting home care and continuing care providers who care for many of them, and reviewing the continuing care system to make it better and safer,” he said.

“We continue to have a health advocate who is devoted to addressing the concerns of all Albertans, including seniors, and connecting them to the staff in either Alberta Health or seniors and housing,” Shandro added. “All the former staff of the seniors advocate’s office, other than the former advocate herself, continue to work in the two departments.”

Shandro did not respond directly to a question posed by Sigurdson asking if he would support the private member bill.

The bill will now be reviewed by the legislature’s standing committee on private member bills who will determine whether it should be brought back to the legislature for consideration.