Ottawa boosts allowances for northern nurses

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OTTAWA — Nursing stations on Manitoba reserves are operating at 40 per cent of normal staffing levels as nurses flock to private agencies because of tough working conditions.

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OTTAWA — Nursing stations on Manitoba reserves are operating at 40 per cent of normal staffing levels as nurses flock to private agencies because of tough working conditions.

“It’s nurses not wanting to work under the conditions that they have been placed under,” said Jennifer Carr, head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

The union has brokered a deal, which was announced Tuesday, in which Indigenous Services Canada will nearly triple incentives for nurses who work on remote reserves.

ADRIAN WYLD / CANADIAN PRESS FILES Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu promised her government has more to say.

Manitoba has 21 of the 50 federal nursing stations that are classified as remote. Carr said those communities have serious staffing shortfalls.

“Right now in Manitoba, there’s a 60 per cent vacancy rate in staffing of these positions,” the union head said Tuesday.

“It’s simply not that easy to find qualified candidates willing to accept the tough work, the distance and the travel involved (and) the potential for accidents on the way to and from these communities,” Carr said.

“They arrive in communities with no running or hot water or scheduled periods without electricity. They are providing care in the most difficult of circumstances.”

In May, chiefs from 23 of the 27 reserves in northern Manitoba voted to declare a state of emergency due to short-staffing at nursing stations, as well as closures of provincially run health centres.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak reiterated its concerns in July, saying First Nations are bearing the brunt of an exhausted health care system.

Carr said reserve nurses are wooed by private agencies that provide better working hours and pay for travel time. She accused Indigenous Services Canada of dropping the ball.

Taxpayers end up covering the larger bill anyway, she said.

Leila Gillis, deputy chief nursing officer for Indigenous Services Canada, said retirements are a factor.

“Demographically, we do have a number of nurses who are more on the end of their career,” said Gillis, who helps oversee the system.

Gillis said Ottawa is working on a recruitment and retention strategy that aims to hire younger and Indigenous nurses, and have more nurse practitioners who are trained to undertake more duties.

“We’re kind of looking at… the personas of individuals who successfully flourish within the practice environment in remote and isolated communities,” she said, adding some want the breadth of experience that comes with being the main medical response for a community.

Carr said nurses in the federal system earn less than their provincial counterparts, but did not have an estimate for how the compensation varies between nurses paid by Manitoba Health and those working on remote reserves.

Indigenous Services Canada has 840 nurses on its payroll for roughly 80 nursing stations and 195 health centres. That excludes privately contracted nurses.

Of the 50 nursing stations deemed remote, there are roughly 230 nurses on staff, a shortfall of up to 150 nurses, Gillis said.

First Nations leaders in Manitoba have advocated for decades to take control of health care, arguing that Indigenous people are subject to the whim of federal and provincial policies. They allege there’s racism from front-line staff.

The Trudeau government has helped launch a series of pilot projects, though chiefs say they would like to run their own hospitals, and hire doctors from Cuba.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu promised her government has more to say, but argued Ottawa needed to respond to an imminent crisis.

“This is an urgent step that we’re taking to provide, and hopefully secure, some stability for our nursing and nursing care in remote communities,” she said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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Updated on Tuesday, August 16, 2022 7:45 PM CDT: Photos added.

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