OTTAWA—Two members of Parliament with dramatically different political affiliations have joined forces in an effort to establish a national strategy to deal with dementia.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Rob Nicholson is the architect of a private member’s bill that, if passed, would establish a Canada-wide framework for dealing with mental-health conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
He has the support of an unlikely ally: Liberal MP Rob Oliphant.
The pitch for a national dementia strategy has been on Nicholson’s mind ever since former NDP MP Claude Gravelle brought forward an unsuccessful proposal on the same topic.
Nicholson said he had specific issues with Gravelle’s legislation but always thought the idea had merit.
“I’ve been thinking about it, believe it or not, ever since,” Nicholson noted.
“I’ve decided to go ahead with it.”
Alzheimer’s also hits close to home for the former minister. His father struggled with the disease before he died in 1997.
“I am, in many ways, no different than millions of other Canadians who are either related to or know somebody that has [Alzheimer’s],” Nicholson said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Nicholson’s bill calls for specific national objectives to improve scenarios for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as more investment in research, particularly in biomedical and clinical work.
Nicholson said he was careful to ensure the legislation would not extend into areas of provincial jurisdiction—an issue to which he’s particularly sensitive given his previous experience as a justice minister.
“That’s one of the things I thought about right from the start,” he noted.
“I don’t want to be associated with any bill that looks like we are taking over an area of provincial jurisdiction because I’m very aware of the constitution of this country and there’s a reason why there are splits in the different areas of jurisdiction.”
The Alzheimer Society now is encouraging all MPs to get behind the bill.
The number of Canadians living with Alzheimer’s and similar conditions is expected to soar to 1.4 million by 2031—nearly twice the 747,000 people diagnosed in 2011 (or 14.9 percent of Canadians 65 and older).
Part of the goal of the legislation is to raise awareness, Nicholson said.
“This is a huge problem and it is not just seniors who are getting this,” he stressed.
“In the end, this is not a partisan thing,” Nicholson added. “This is about trying . . . to move forward on something that is going to get worse according to all of the statistics.”
The issue also strikes a chord with Oliphant.
“Twenty-five years as a United Church minister, I’ve dealt with families constantly who are wrestling with this,” Oliphant noted.
“As a pastor, you live it with them.”
Nicholson’s stature also brings huge credibility to the bill, Oliphant added, noting they also have another thing in common: they’re getting older.
“I don’t think that’s totally accidental,” he admitted. “We have an aging population. . . .
“This is not just a health issue, it is also an economic issue.”
On a personal note, Nicholson said he suspects his late father would appreciate his proposal.
“He was here to see me become a member of Parliament, and he was always very moved and very supportive of me,” he said.
“He would say this is one more avenue in the right direction.”