Wolf Solkin lives with a pacemaker, legs that don’t support him and bedsores that need constant attention. But at 96, his wits are as sharp as a spear and his fighting spirit remains intact.
He helped liberate the Netherlands during the Second World War and watched men he led get shredded by artillery. His closest friend fell days before Germany surrendered.
He now watches old soldiers die from his room on the 11th floor of Ste. Anne’s Hospital, a long-term-care facility for war veterans in the Montreal area. Of the 32 veterans who lived on the floor when he arrived in 2013, only Solkin and another are still breathing.
Three times a week, he rides his battery-powered wheelchair to a memorial on the ground floor, where pictures of the latest deceased veterans are posted. And with a steady hand he salutes them.
For Ste. Anne’s veterans, those dead and alive, Solkin has gone back to war. Much to his anger and regret, his foes this time include the federal government he once risked his life to defend.
He has launched a class-action lawsuit that accuses the Quebec government of allowing care at Ste. Anne’s to deteriorate, and Ottawa of betraying the veterans it has a duty to care for. “It’s an injustice of the worst order,” he says. “It’s a corruption of morals and I won’t take it.”
Ste. Anne’s was the last federally operated veteran’s hospital to be transferred to a province. By all accounts, care declined literally overnight on April 1, 2016, when Ste. Anne’s was handed to the Quebec government. A written agreement to maintain the same level of bilingual care was broken.
“We went from being a fine federal facility to a provincial geriatric garage,” says Solkin, who pays a monthly rent of $1,039.
Veterans long cared for by staff they had known for years suddenly found themselves dealing with a revolving door of part-time workers whose skills and experience seemed limited.
Solkin, for example, needs a hoist to get him out of bed and into his battery-powered wheelchair. Recently, a new orderly strapped him in the harness, raised him with the hoist but realized as he was being lowered that the chair was out of place.
What the orderly apparently didn’t know is that, as a safety mechanism, the chair can’t be moved when it is tilted slightly upwards. The orderly had no idea which button would level it, and communication was an exercise in frustration.
“I tried to explain it to her but her English is extremely poor and my French is fractured,” Solkin says. So he remained hanging, “like a stuffed pig in mid-air,” while the orderly fumbled with the controls and Solkin’s cramped hips registered pain.
“Finally, I yelled through the open door: ‘Help! Help!” Solkin says. A more experienced orderly rushed in, assessed the dangerously absurd scene and placed the chair properly.
On Feb. 20, to the cheers of veterans across the country, Quebec’s Superior Court authorized Solkin’s class-action lawsuit against the federal and Quebec governments, and the agency that operates Ste. Anne’s.
Justice Donald Bisson blasted the defendants for allowing care “to degenerate to the point of putting at risk the health, the lives, the integrity and the dignity of the residents.”
Bisson also appointed Solkin the representative of the group suing for at least $30 million in damages. It’s made up of about 340 veterans of the Second World War and Korean War, who were residents of Ste. Anne’s on or after the day of the transfer. The group includes the estates of those who have since died.
“Let’s face it,” Solkin says, “we’re here to die. But while we’re here, let us at least live with proper care, full dignity and our due measure of respect.”
Solkin is an affable, determined man. He speaks in a raspy voice, the remnant of throat cancer, and his words are blunt. He doesn’t have time to waste.
The walls of his sunlit room are covered with pictures of his many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A photocopy of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” in John McRae’s handwriting, is on a closet door.
He was reluctant to move to Ste. Anne’s, at the western tip of the Island of Montreal, despite its reputation for high-quality care since 1917. Years earlier he had watched his mother die in a nursing home “from neglect and heartbreak.” He was quickly reassured.
“Within the first couple of days of arriving here I told my far-flung family: ‘I’m in the Playboy Club. The bunnies are a little long in the tooth, but this is a fantastic place.
“There was a sign on my door that said, ‘Welcome Mr. Solkin.’ And those words were carried out in action by everybody, from the doctors to the cleaning ladies. Everybody treated you with respect. Everybody gave you the attention and care you required.”
Ste. Anne’s was one of 44 federal hospitals for returning soldiers shortly after the end of the Second World War. By the time a royal commission on the organization of government reported in 1963, 18 of those hospitals remained. It noted health care is a provincial responsibility and recommended the hospitals be transferred. By 1995, all but Ste. Anne’s had been turned over to the provinces.
In 1998, a Senate committee reported on deteriorating services in some transferred facilities. When Ste. Anne’s turn finally came, a transfer agreement between Ottawa and Quebec City committed both to maintaining the level of care and services.
To that end, the federal government agreed to pay Quebec what now stands at $159 per day for each veteran at Ste. Anne’s, according to the lawsuit. A freedom-of-information request filed by Solkin revealed that two years after the transfer, the federal government had remitted more than $27 million to the Quebec government. Yet services and care declined.
“Where did that money go?” says Laurent Kanemy, Solkin’s lawyer. He speculates that Quebec’s health ministry likely distributed the funds among the eight hospitals and clinics that form the West Island health care consortium that includes Ste. Anne’s.
Claims made in Solkin’s lawsuit haven’t been tested in court. (Kanemy says the parties being sued did not contest Solkin’s application to authorize the class action.) In his decision, however, Justice Bisson said the defendants had “failed miserably” in their contractual obligation to maintain services. The federal government, he added, also failed in its fiduciary duty to veterans.
Solkin says he’s fighting for veterans who can’t physically speak for themselves, or are too frightened to do so. All suffer the daily consequences, he adds, of worsened care.
“I have a permanent catheter; I got a pipe in my penis for life, OK? That’s part of my condition and I can live with it — if they let me live!”
Bladder infections are a constant risk. Urologists used to visit Ste. Anne’s once a month to change catheters. After the transfer, Solkin says they do so every three months.
In 2017, Solkin suffered a urinary tract infection and was rushed to an emergency ward. “I was literally at death’s door.”
Less specialized basic services have also been reduced.
“There were several occasions where I soiled my diaper and I’d ring my bell and I’d have to wait anywhere from 45 minutes and more to have someone come in and take me out of my own feces,” Solkin says.
“What’s wrong with me lying in my feces for 45 minutes or more? It’s not just that it’s undignified and a terrible feeling, it potentially causes infection. And when you have a catheter and bedsores, as I do, it can be dangerous.
“I can accommodate myself to the conditions of my health, but I can’t accommodate myself to the way those conditions are being neglected.”
The lawsuit claims a doctor was present on the veterans’ floors four-and-a-half days a week before the transfer; now it’s once a week. The number of radiologists and nurses has also declined.
Services in cardiology, pulmonology, hematology, psychiatry and blood-test analysis are no longer available on site. Dentistry and laryngoscopy services disappeared for many months before being restored. Even the cleaning of wheelchairs, once done regularly, now occurs once a year, the lawsuit says.
Recently, Solkin was rushed to hospital after his heart slowed to 22 beats a minute. A pacemaker was installed. He says 17 days went by before a doctor came to examine him at Ste. Anne’s after the surgery.
The transfer agreement also guarantees that veterans continue to be served in the official language of their choice. Solkin says he has repeatedly been told by administrators that bilingual help can’t be found.
“They say, ‘Look, your choice is having a non-bilingual person or nobody.’ Well, in some cases, having a non-bilingual person is almost equivalent to nobody.”
Largely to blame for the service troubles is a deterioration in working conditions, according to the union representing most workers at Ste. Anne’s.
The transfer resulted in a new employer and, therefore, a new collective agreement. Salaries were slashed by an average of 30 per cent. Pay for personal care workers, who help patients with most of their daily needs, fell from $30 an hour to $20.
When lower benefits were calculated, the financial hit for workers was 50 per cent, says Jonathan Deschamps, president of the local Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Long-serving employees rushed to the exit. Of Ste. Anne’s 1,000 workers, fully 40 per cent left around the day of the transfer. Another 20 per cent, Deschamps says, quit by the end of the first year under provincial control.
Ste. Anne’s administrators, who had planned for only a quarter of staff leaving, have been scrambling to fill the vacancies ever since, he adds.
“It was a crisis,” says Deschamps, who has worked at the hospital for 14 years. “Employees had twice as many patients to care for and they couldn’t take their time with them. They had to move fast, like working on an assembly line.”
Quebec’s minister of health and social services, Danielle McCann, declined to comment, noting the lawsuit is before the courts. The same goes for the administrative agency representing the West Island health grouping, the Centre Intégré Universitaire de Santé et des Services Sociaux de L’Ouest de L’Ile de Montréal.
The federal government also won’t comment on the court case but is somewhat more talkative.
At a December 2018 hearing of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, assistant deputy minister Michel Doiron noted “the transfer agreement stipulated that the level of services was to be maintained.” He then added: “For sure, after the transfer, there was a decrease in services.”
In a statement to the Star, Veterans Affairs Canada says Ottawa’s “ongoing financial support for each eligible war Veteran is intended to ensure they continue to receive the care and services they are entitled to, in the official language of their choice.”
The department said it works closely with Quebec, including on a committee overseeing application of the transfer agreement. A ministry liaison officer is at the hospital full time. The ministry urged and supported provincial staffing efforts, resulting in “the hiring of approximately 50 new staff, which includes nurses and orderlies.”
In a separate statement, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said the federal government financially supports 5,000 veterans in 1,300 health-care facilities across Canada.
“We remain committed to ensuring they receive the proper care and support they deserve after serving our country,” MacAulay said.
Wolf William Solkin was born of Jewish parents on Feb. 12, 1923 in Bessarabia, an eastern European territory that at the time had been annexed by Romania but now forms part of Ukraine and Moldova.
His parents came to Canada with their only child a year later and settled in Hamilton. Solkin’s father, who westernized his Yiddish name to Maurice, worked in a sheet metal factory that made pails. Later, he pushed a cart as a door-to-door fruit peddler before moving to Toronto when Solkin was 4.
Maurice was fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Latvian — skills that landed him a job at a steamship ticket agency, where layaway plans let new Canadians deposit funds until they had enough for tickets to bring over their families.
On the side, Maurice worked as a court translator, and at night, as a fire damage adjuster rushing to land clients by being first on the scene. He set his alarm clock to wake him every two hours. He’d call the local fire department and his greeting still rings in his son’s ears: “Solkin speaking. Anything doing?”
During the Great Depression, when Solkin was 10, he sold the Toronto Daily Star at the corner of Spadina Ave. and College St.
He recites the family’s Toronto addresses without hesitation: 4 Major St., 24 Robert St., 62 Sussex Ave. and 189 Robert St. With each move the family inched further north but never made it across Bloor St., where Solkin says the “upper strata” lived. In those neighbourhoods, Solkin shovelled snow from driveways for a few extra bucks.
Solkin was 15 when his father became executive director of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society of Canada and moved the family to Montreal, where the agency was based. After his parents divorced, his mother, Adele, became a licensed practical nurse.
When war broke out, Solkin volunteered. He completed his degree in sociology from McGill University while in training and attended the graduating ceremony in military uniform.
He shipped to England for military training as a 20-year-old artillery officer. At Ste. Anne’s, a photo of Solkin as a tall, dashing young officer is taped to the side of a dresser next to his bed. He has a pipe at his lips and a thick moustache, which he grew to signal gravitas and fuel confidence in the older men he commanded.
“I cut quite a figure in those days,” he says. “I was proud to be in the Canadian army. I was proud as a peacock, and looked like one, too.”
But a D-Day training exercise put Solkin out of action.
He rode a motorcycle on a pitch-black night at the head of a truck convoy. “English country roads are narrow and very windy,” he recalls. “And I’m not sure what happened but I went around a bend too fast, or I couldn’t see it, and I rammed into a steel pole with my head first.”
He flew with his bike through a high row of hedges and blacked out. No one knew he was missing until morning. When he regained consciousness, his mouth was filled with shattered teeth.
He heard a search party nearby but couldn’t move. So he threw his leather helmet over the hedge and it was spotted. He spent months recovering in hospital from a fractured skull and jaw, and a serious concussion.
His superiors were understandably cautious about sending him into action when he finally got out. They appointed him morale officer, organizing dances and bingos. Solkin raised an almighty fuss until he was transferred to the Algonquin Regiment and, as a lieutenant, sent to fight in Holland in early 1945.
He hesitates to talk about the war. “I’m not interested in self-aggrandizement,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like a boastful old man.” Prodded gently over several hours, he describes an experience that has nothing to do with ego: the day he led his rifle platoon to a railroad embankment near the German border.
“Suddenly we were plastered with heavy bombardment of artillery,” he says. “And I realized very quickly it was coming from behind us — it was our own artillery, it was friendly fire!
“I’m in charge of these guys and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. And I put them there. All we could do was press our faces against the embankment.
“Artillery is fragmentation — you don’t know who it’s going to hit and who it’s going to miss. They couldn’t move, I couldn’t move, and we were just decimated. I felt, not so much fear, but so helpless.”
He returned from the war with a final mission.
In the Algonquin Regiment, he grew close to Bill O’Donnell, a fellow Montrealer. “He was the older brother I never had.”
Before heading into battle, the two men signed each other’s wills and made a pact: if one was killed the other would personally deliver a message to his family back home.
The men were in different platoons, so Solkin did not witness a sniper putting a bullet through O’Donnell’s head. Germany surrendered unconditionally less than a month later, on May 8, 1945.
O’Donnell left a daughter, and an ex-wife who had divorced him while he was overseas. Solkin called the ex-wife and said O’Donnell asked him to deliver a message to his daughter. The woman would not let him speak with her and told him not to call back.
A framed picture of O’Donnell has been displayed in Solkin’s office or home ever since.
Life went on. Solkin obtained a master’s in social work at the University of Toronto, got a job at St. Christopher House, and realized social work didn’t pay the bills for a young family.
He went into real estate and ended up overseeing a housing and golf course project in Florida.
That landed him a job with Harry Helmsley, the late billionaire developer whose possessions included Manhattan’s Empire State Building and the Flatiron building. Solkin ran Helmsley’s chain of motels in Florida before moving to New York to manage hotels, including what became the Ritz-Carlton.
He says he stayed with Helmsley until the billionaire’s “quite obnoxious” wife, Leona, began interfering with his running of the hotels. He left well before 1988, when both Harry and Leona were indicted on numerous counts of tax fraud. Solkin then spent years building factories and warehouses in Florida before retiring to Montreal.
Bill O’Donnell’s last wish continued to gnaw at him.
He knew the first name of O’Donnell’s daughter — Marcia — and contacted National Defence, Veterans Affairs and Archives Canada for any information that might track her down. Archives Canada eventually found Marcia in Edmonton, told her of Solkin’s search and she got in touch.
Forty years after the war, Solkin finally delivered O’Donnell’s message: “Your dad wanted me to tell you that he loves you.”
Solkin and Marcia have stayed in contact ever since.
Solkin’s day at Ste. Anne’s begins with staff emptying his catheter. He has breakfast and then tackles the New York Times crossword puzzle, which by design increases in difficulty each day. Solkin never gets past Wednesday.
He gets himself spruced up on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, when his wife Louise visits. He keeps his time in his wheelchair to a minimum, but made an exception during the hours he spoke with the Star, joking that talking about his class action “is worth the pain in the ass.”
Part of his day is spent on his iPad, communicating with younger veterans across the country and receiving thousands of messages of support. He types with his index finger: “I can send and receive and forward. Don’t ask me to cut and paste or any of those fancy phrases.”
Younger veterans, Solkin says, are so exasperated by efforts to get services and benefits from Veterans Affairs they’ve labelled the exercise “Delay, deny until we die.”
Of the 340 war veterans at Ste. Anne’s when the transfer occurred, 133 were left at last count, according to Solkin’s lawyer, Laurent Kanemy.
“They’re just waiting for them to die,” Kanemy says of the defendants in the lawsuit. “They’re not going to change the level of service, I can tell you that.”
Jonathan Deschamps, the union president, says staffing levels have pretty much returned to what they were before the transfer. But the number of residents jumped to 408 once the facility began accepting non-veterans.
“It’s getting better,” Deschamps says. “We’re still short of workers, but we’re about at the same level as anywhere else in the Quebec health sector. And that’s far from the level when Ste. Anne’s was federal.”
Solkin of course knows he may not live to see the outcome of what he calls “my final act of desperation.” His big extended family has gathered to celebrate his birthday every decade, at 75, 85 and 95. “Now, I’m only promising them a reunion at 100, not 105.”
Yet it’s the lawsuit that gets him up in the morning.
“The war was a noble battle. We fought for freedom, we fought for liberty, we fought against conquest by the Nazis and the fascists.
“This battle is not a noble one, it’s a tragic one,” Solkin says of his lawsuit. “We’re fighting the government we once fought to preserve. Or, you can look at it another way: the government we once fought for is now fighting us. They are our foe, and that’s the tragedy.”