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Linda wants nurses pissed off and mobilized

CFNU president Linda Silas took to the convention stage on Tuesday with a clear message for nurses: we can’t back down and we won’t back down. The address was delivered in the shadow of a global pandemic that continues to dominate nurses’ working lives and that, sadly, has taken far too many away from us.

“It’s been tough,” Silas acknowledged. “There’s no overstating it. Our health care system was already stretched to the max. Our workloads were already unsustainable. Our mental health was already being tested.”

“The system had no give.”

Silas pointed to the pandemic’s many devastating impacts, including the long-term care sector, where far too many seniors perished at the hands of a system where profits motives can often trump care. She also spoke to the impacts on our economy, which left countless Canadians without jobs. Without a universal national pharmacare program to fall back on, many of Canada’s unemployed also had to grapple with a losing employer-provided drug coverage. And the pandemic also exacerbated existing inequalities in our society, which led to Black, Indigenous and people of colour being disproportionately affected by the virus.

“COVID-19 laid bare the cracks in our health care system – the cracks in our society,” Silas remarked.

As nurses worked themselves ragged against several waves of COVID-19, governments did not let up their attacks on the health care sector and its workers. The pandemic may have made the case for a strong public health care system, but some provincial governments are still looking to make cuts, forcing nurses to once again do more with less. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Doug Ford is still holding firm on capping nurses’ wage increases to a total of one per cent for three years.

“Did [nurses’ hard work during the pandemic] earn us any gesture of good will?” Silas asked. “Absolutely not. While [premiers] applauded us in front of the cameras, they were busy undermining us behind the scenes.”

Silas also took effect with the many failures to protect nurses, both physically and psychologically, during this pandemic. Especially egregious, Silas noted, were nurses being forced to re-use PPE and some being so short-staffed that they found themselves working 24-hour shifts.

“I don’t ever want to hear about another nurse having to wear an N95 for twelve hours and having to put it in a brown paper bag to take it home,” Silas said.

These government failures and attacks are infuriating, but Silas maintained that nurses need to channel their anger into action.

“We can’t let our anger – our frustration – our pissed-off-ed-ness – paralyze us.”

Nurses may not be able to stage a walkout, but they can speak up. Silas reminded nurses of their clout; the public is hungry to hear from nurses and holds their opinions in high esteem. Nurses not only need to speak to their elected leaders, but also to friends and family – anyone who can vote – about the need to strengthen and safeguard Canada’s public health care system. And nurses need to vote. If politicians don’t stand with nurses, they need to be voted out, Silas declared.

COVID-19 not only exposed the cracks in our society, it widened them. As we work towards a new normal, nurses’ voices need to be at the centre of forging a healthier and more equitable Canada.

“We have to channel our anger into action,” Silas said. “We have to make ourselves heard.”

“We can’t back down; we won’t back down. It’s a promise.”