Ottawa steps in to support frustrated, angry nurses as health system teeters

In the national debate over how best to solve a chronic nursing shortage, the plot has most definitely thickened.

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Opinion

In the national debate over how best to solve a chronic nursing shortage, the plot has most definitely thickened.

On Tuesday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced the appointment of Canada’s first chief nursing officer to help the provinces get a handle on the nursing shortage. Duclos announced that Dr. Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse with 20 years experience, will fill this new position.

The announcement is intriguing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact the federal government plays no significant role currently in the training, recruitment or retention of nurses. That job falls to the provinces, which have the constitutional authority over all health-care expenditures.

However, if the current national nursing crisis is any indication, the provinces have all profoundly mismanaged this important human resource and anyone in need of prompt health care is paying the price.

Duclos made no secret of the fact that Ottawa is stepping in to provide support for nurses the provinces seem unable to muster.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

On Tuesday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced the appointment of Canada’s first chief nursing officer to help the provinces get a handle on the nursing shortage.

“There are already a number of jurisdictions in Canada reporting nursing shortages, which is having an impact on the functioning of emergency rooms and other critical health services,” Duclos told reporters this week.

“With this growing crisis, we need to support our nurses, make sure they are heard and that their challenges are met with solutions.”

What, if anything, could the chief nursing officer do to repair the relationship between the provinces and nurses? Solutions, to borrow from Duclos’ statement, are most definitely needed, and there is no reason why a third party representing the federal government shouldn’t be able to consult and showcase suggestions from nurses themselves.

Various nursing organizations, such as the Canadian Nursing Association, have made recommendations in the past on how to alleviate the nursing shortage, but most of those have fallen on deaf ears in provincial capitals.

“With this growing crisis, we need to support our nurses, make sure they are heard and that their challenges are met with solutions.” – Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos

In July, the CNA made a series of recommendations, including a pan-Canadian health workforce strategy to promote mobility, a new generation of retention strategies, new approaches to limit excessive overtime and unreasonable shift allocation and major improvements in education and licensing.

Most provinces are considering all those things in one way or the other, but no jurisdiction seems to have made a breakthrough. And to be fair, many of those recommendations involve systemic change that will take years to show results.

That means at this moment in time, with hospitals all over the country closing beds and emergency rooms because of a shortage of nurses, there is a very real possibility that there are no short-term fixes.

Abused and misused for years, excluded from the planning process for the most seismic structural changes in the health-care system, nurses are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized. Thanks to the pandemic — but not only the pandemic — working conditions are abysmal and nurses are understandably unable to stretch themselves any further to fill in the gaps.

Abused and misused for years, excluded from the planning process for the most seismic structural changes in the health-care system, nurses are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized.

These conditions have prompted many nurses to cut back on the number of shifts they are working, or to take their skills to the private sector, where the pay and working conditions are reported to be much better.

Manitoba is not the only province suffering from a nursing shortage. Even so, the actions of the current government over the past six years is an excellent example of how the provinces have lost the confidence of nurses.

When the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 2016, former premier Brian Pallister made it clear he resented the close relationship between nursing unions and the former NDP government. That resentment became increasingly evident as the Tories began to trigger changes in health policy.

TIM SMITH / THE BRANDON SUN FILES

When the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 2016, former premier Brian Pallister made it clear he resented the close relationship between nursing unions and the former NDP government

The Tories introduced a major restructuring of Winnipeg’s hospital system that involved the closure of three emergency departments. The initiative had major and immediate impact on nurses, many of whom faced major changes to when and where they worked.

The restructuring strategy was, in theory, a worthy project. However, excluding nurses from the planning process with the expectation they would simply adjust to the new structure has proven to be a fatal mistake.

Restructuring is not the only source of conflict with nurses. The Pallister government allowed its contract with the Manitoba Nurses Union to languish for nearly five years with no real effort to negotiate a new deal. That meant five years without a new contract, which meant no new improvements to wages or retention tools just as nurses were thrown on the front lines of the pandemic.

A tentative agreement with the MNU was not reached until October 2021, two months after Pallister announced he was stepping down and a month before Premier Heather Stefanson stepped in. There are more than a few people within the Tory government who believe the deal was only possible because, by that time, Pallister had given up interest in the day-to-day business of government.

Ottawa is expected to increase health transfer payments to the provinces in the forthcoming years. If that support eases provincial concerns about federal support, then perhaps there is room for the chief nursing officer to bring forward some positive ideas.

The only thing that seems certain now is that the chief nursing officer is going to talk with, and listen to, nurses. And that is a positive step forward.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The announcement is intriguing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact the federal government plays no significant role currently in the training, recruitment or retention of nurses.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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