The CFNU Logo
June 22, 2023

President’s Address: Nurses unions are raising the bar

2023 Convention

No more making nice

The following address was given by CFNU President Linda Silas at the CFNU Biennial Convention on June 8, 2023.


Thank you for coming.

So wonderful to see you here, in person again. I know it’s been a long, hard road we’ve had to get here. Our last convention was virtual, in the shadow of the pandemic. But while many have moved on – frontline nurses are still working in this shadow. The challenges ahead of us are daunting.

Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Well, my friends, you know a group of people who can change the world like no other? A group of pissed off nurses like us. Nurses can’t take it anymore.

Nellie McClung was a fierce activist and reformer. She helped put Canadian women at the heart of our politics.

I can’t help but think today of what she said over a hundred years ago…

“Never retreat … never explain … never apologize.

Get the thing done … and let them howl.

Can I hear you howl?

That’s what we are doing here this week.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Together, strong and united.

In fact, we are now even stronger and even more united.

I am so happy to be able to say the British Columbia Nurses’ Union are here with us.

Yes, we’ve reunited the family of nurses. Adding 48,000 more nurses to the CFNU family. Because we are union nurses. Because we are Canada’s working nurses.

Because we believe in healing old wounds.

We know that together we can overcome every challenge. Because – Together we got this!

That’s why during the pandemic we worked with BCNU, we worked with FIQ in Quebec.

Last year, when we held a summit of nurses’ unions to build solutions to nursing shortages we made sure nurses from across Canada were part of our discussions.

Nurses believe in community, in solidarity and in supporting each other.

We are involved in a process at the CLC around our decision to reunite our nursing family. We are so proud to have welcomed our BC nurses into the Federation. Now, more than ever, we need to speak with a strong united voice.

Speaking out, together, to defend our members.

Because of accusations of raiding from 13 years ago, some unions in BC are challenging this move.

Right now, that process is somewhat bumpy, but we have ongoing meetings and discussions.

I can tell you: the leadership and nurses of the BCNU are ready to contribute to the CFNU, and to the larger labour movement.

Your National Executive Board gave me a clear mandate –

  • Aman and Adrienne from BC
  • Heather and Danielle from Alberta
  • Tracy from Saskatchewan
  • Darlene from Manitoba
  • Erin and Angela from Ontario
  • Paula from New Brunswick
  • Janet from Nova Scotia
  • Barb from PEI
  • our Secretary Treasurer Pauline
  • and Eyasu, from the Nursing Students’ Association

That mandate is to protect you.

You will always be at the centre of everything we do.

As my father always said, remember who you represent. Who you need to stand up for. Who pays your salary.

Rest assured that whatever happens with the CLC, our family of nurses’ unions remain committed to working in solidarity across unions. We will rise to the challenge of the moment. And move forward together. Make no mistake we are fired up and ready to change the world.

We’ve already had two great days of education and sharing best practices. And later today, our Secretary-Treasurer Pauline Worsfold will deliver her report.

I need to stop here for a minute to talk about Pauline. She has been an officer with the CFNU since 2001. Pauline has been a tremendous advocate for nurses. She helped build the CFNU into what we are today.

All while delivering the best care to her patients.

Pauline could tell you many nursing stories.

Through all her work for the CFNU and the Canadian Health Coalition, she continued working as a nurse.

I remember her telling me about one of her many medical missions. In Ecuador the electricity cut off in the middle of an operation with no generators. They had to use flashlights and bag the patient.

If you need blood for a transfusion, you run into the waiting room and ask a family member or go out and find someone, quick.

Pauline, it didn’t matter to you if you were at a union or health coalition meeting or at the side of your patients.

You just have the biggest heart that will always shine through.

Please join me in thanking Pauline for her remarkable contributions to Canadian health care.

I hope you embarrass her with another ovation this afternoon when she delivers her report.

My friends, I don’t have to tell you there’s real urgency to our work here over the next two days.

I spoke recently to an experienced frontline nurse in Newfoundland. She told me about the long hours she’s being asked to work.

She said that “around hour 20” she started to get confused.

How can anyone be expected to function after over 20 straight hours on the job?

Because we face harder challenges than ever. We must make our movement stronger than ever.

We saw a 17% jump in nursing vacancies across Canada just in the last quarter of 2022. Here in PEI, nursing vacancies soared as high as 24%.

Nurses are working harder and working longer. Overtime hours hit a new high last summer.

Double shifts and cancelled vacations have become your everyday reality. And there’s no relief in sight for this summer. Meanwhile, governments have turned, more and more, to agency nurses.

In just four years we’ve seen up to a 550% increase in spending on agency nurses. Siphoning public funds into private pockets.

Pulling more nurses out of the public system.

But nurses don’t turn away from hard problems. We don’t respond by laying down. Despite your exhaustion, you took to the streets.

And pushed governments like never before.

In April, I joined ONA’s die-in protest. Nurses laying down together, in the shadow of the provincial legislature at the foot of some of Canada’s largest hospitals.

I am excited we will be doing our own die-in tomorrow during our rally.

We will be dying for safe staffing. Going – going – gone!

But when your government takes nurses to court and hands public health dollars to for‑profit clinics and nursing agencies – what choice do we have but to take to the streets?

As stakes were raised for nurses… our team at CFNU – well we also turned up the heat on politicians and policy makers.

Nurses unions are raising the bar – we are demanding governments: do more – real action. We made sure they understood your needs.

And confronted them with our solutions.

I don’t have to tell you nurses we aren’t the type to just complain.

We’re the ones who take on the heavy lifting and solve problems.

And all of these initiatives started with you.

Because no one in Canada – no one – knows better how to fix health care than a nurse.

No one knows better than you. During the last election, we engaged the parties.

Demanded they put nurses at the centre of their health care plans.

The CFNU launched a voter awareness campaign on the nationwide shortage of nurses. Pressed all political parties to make clear commitments.

Held rallies – from car rallies in Alberta to virtual rallies in Saskatchewan.

Nurses united around a simple slogan: Enough. And while the new minority parliament looks like the old one, we saw a new opportunity.

A chance to push parties who said they were committed to public health care to actually work together and strengthen public health care.

And the deal between the New Democrats and Liberals.

Put health care at the top of the list. It delivered commitments to invest in fixing nursing shortages, safer long-term care, national dental care and in the coming months finally at long last after you have fought for so long.

We will see a federal bill on universal pharmacare.

But that’s not enough. We heard your concerns and focused our work on dire nursing shortages. We are working on delivering a new nurse retention fund – administered by nurses and for nurses.

We worked with Dr. Ivy Bourgeault and Dr. Houssem Eddine Ben Ahmed on a new report, Sustaining Nursing in Canada.

This showed the direct line between poor planning by governments. And the failures that led to today’s crisis.

And, most importantly, the report pointed to solutions, starting with coordinated pan‑Canadian workforce planning.

And guess what – we do our work: the Minister of Health and his groups of deputies understood that we needed to bring everyone at the table to fix this National HHR crisis, and last November, Health Canada created Coalition for Action for Health Workers, and I’m so proud to be your loud voice at those meetings.

Nurses and nursing is very well represented: from CNA to our Chief Nurse.

And when you spoke out about rising threats of violence, remember 2019 convention? Hit a nurse – go to jail!

We heard you and worked with the federal government to do something about it. I was proud to stand beside Canada’s justice minister as he introduced a new law to make your workplaces safer.

We heard you loud and clear about the growing mental health challenges you face.

So we engaged the folks behind new mental health supports for public safety workers. To develop a proposal to extend these same supports to nurses.

At CFNU, we bring together all our Member Organizations to continue to grow our influence. We went to the Council of the Federation and made sure every premier heard loud and clear about what had to be done.

We launched a media campaign to get our message into the face of every premier and every member of their delegation.

We held a breakfast with the premiers and outlined our solutions.

We launched a new website and letter campaign focused on safe patient care to engage Canadians and build momentum.

And while we supported the premiers’ call for increased funding, we demanded new federal investments come with conditions attached.

Because money, without action to help nurses, won’t solve anything.

We ramped up pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to show leadership. And finally call a First Ministers’ Meeting on health care.

And then made sure our National Executive Board had a chance to make our case directly face to face with the Prime Minister.

Look, maybe the buck stops with the PM. But changing government decisions means pushing on many levels, all at once. So, we regularly engaged the Minister of Health and his team.

Pressure which helped the minister act – including finally putting a Chief Nurse in place.

The appointment of Dr. Leigh Chapman opened up another avenue to exercise our influence.

Bonjour to Leigh who is here with us at Convention!

While the minister provides political direction, officials implement things.

So we’ve increased our focus on key decision makers in the Health Department.

Making sure that a “yes” from a politician … doesn’t just become a “no” from senior officials.

And we engaged more MPs more often and, yes, a lot more loudly.

55 times and counting since our last convention. This work helped us get two different parliamentary committees to investigate health worker shortages.

We were proud to bring your voices to MPs on the Health Committee and the Human Resources Committee.

And their final reports quoted our testimony and echoed our recommendations.

While many Canadians enjoyed their first summer vacation in years, nurses were met with a summer of hospital closures and emergency room tragedies.

So we are keeping up the pressure.

When our country’s health ministers met last fall, we were there. We pushed them to stop their political grandstanding and start working together.

We do this outreach work with one clear goal. To build our influence and deliver positive change for nurses.

And we raised awareness for our issues with the national media.

So, when they are writing their health care stories, the voices of nurses are front and center. I have never seen as much interest in what we had to say. And it only took a national health care crisis to get politicians to start listening.

I can sum up CFNU’s work in 7 words – I know, you’re saying “sheesh, Linda, if it only takes 7 words, why have you been going on so long?”

But let me hit you with the 7 words:

Fixing Health Care Starts With Respecting Nurses.

We know the agenda of right-wing politicians.

But we are nurses – we are strong – we are fed up. And we aren’t giving up our cherished public health care system without a fight.

In Manitoba, Darlene and the MNU are putting up quite the fight. Because MNU is listening! Their Nurses Rock campaign is great to look at and having a real impact.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Yvette and her team pushed their provincial government to host a Nursing Think Tank and engaged the government directly on pressing issues facing nurses.

The Canadian Nursing Students’ Association is holding the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire and demanding action.

Look what the BCNU did. You negotiated new nurse-patient ratios. This will not only help recruitment and retention but also workplace safety and job satisfaction. You are leading the way setting a new standard for all provinces.

And the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union engaged your new premier. You fought for, and won, better nurse retention incentives. Tangible results for nurses across Nova Scotia. That wasn’t done because Premier Houston did it but because NSNU push him to do it!

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses raised the alarm about the crisis in emergency departments. And when Filipino nurses faced racist attacks, they stood in solidarity.

In Ontario, the ONA has been the loudest voice calling out their government’s backward agenda. Talking truth to a government that legislated real pay cuts on nurses. Denied there even was a health care crisis. The only answer they have, it seems, is more privatization. That’s not going to solve anything. Thankfully, ONA has the back of Ontario’s patients.

The PEI Nurses’ Union made their voices heard loud and clear on the streets during their provincial election this spring – wow, they got a contract shortly after.

In Alberta the UNA is getting their message out across their province with their “Don’t Pull the Plug on Public Health Care” lawn signs. Yes, across the country nurses’ unions have led the way, and we are far from being done!

I am so grateful to our National Executive Board. Thank you for your hard work and commitment. The family of nurses’ unions are second to none – every one of you gets the job done.

Yes, the past few years have been some of the toughest nurses have ever faced.

But we can do something about it.

We will do something about it.

Our Viewpoint poll showed that action by governments could help turn things around.  While three quarters said their workplaces are regularly over capacity, the vast majority also said they would reconsider leaving their jobs. If they had guaranteed days off …

scheduling flexibility and financial incentives.

That’s why we’re working on a new Nurse-led Retention Fund. To scale up projects that are already working.

Like programs that make use of the wisdom of nurses nearing retirement … to mentor early-career nurses. Helping retain both experienced and new nurses.

This is the kind of innovation you get … when you listen to nurses.

Together, we will make progress on safe hours of work. Finally put in place regulated limits to the hours you can be forced to work. Because nurses can’t save lives without sleep.

We’ve launched a new research project. In the coming months, we’ll have a new report with key recommendations on safe working hours. So, working together, we’ll finally make 24-hour shifts a thing of the past.

B.C.’s progress on improving safety with legislated nurse-patient ratios was a historic step forward. Now, instead of this being an exception in one province we will make this the norm across the country.

And we are challenging the federal government to provide tax breaks to nurses. They have done this for teachers, firefighters and trades workers. Well, don’t you think nurses deserve a break, too?

And when governments cry poor, remember where our tax dollars are disappearing.

Instead of investing in public health care, they spend billions on agency and travel nurses.

Let’s be clear on what we’re talking about – billions taken out of public care and put into for-profit agencies.

Making our public health care sustainable. Means ending this flagrant misuse of taxpayer dollars. We will demand full disclosure for how agency nurses are being used and how much governments are spending. Together, we will stop governments from putting shareholders before patients.

We will leave this convention fired up. But first let me take a few minutes to say Merci to the small and mighty team at CFNU in Ottawa – working with our colleagues in your provincial unions either within the communication departments to the GR to the education to the research departments. We together make CFNU the voice of the working nurses of this country.

More thank-yous must go to the CFNU National Executive Board – what a group of fearless leaders, you make me who I am after 20 years steering the CFNU ship, and because of you we have seen and survived rocky waves, because we are doing it together.

And my family – too many sacrifices, but the more spicy you get the more you know you need to appreciate every moment.

  • Today, your NEB committed to raise the bar.
  • We are building the evidence on hours of work as I mentioned earlier … why are the lives of air passengers or pilots more important than our patients’ and our nurses’?
  • No more 24-hour shifts, we need legislation.
  • We are also building the evidence on – wouldn’t it be much wiser to invest in your committed staff than the fly-by agencies?
  • No more being nice.
  • We will leave this convention fired up.

Ready to channel our frustrations into action.

My friends, we will demand every political leader in this country listens to nurses.

And we will demand their respect.

Respect for nurses facing unbearable working conditions.

Respect for nurses working endless shifts.

Respect for nurses and their families who deserve work-life balance

Respect for nurses experiencing violence just for showing up for work.

Respect for nurses – because we are human beings!

Are you with me?

Are you ready to demand their respect?

There it is. That’s what I want to hear. That’s the voices of strong nurses demanding to be heard.

I see a room full of bad-ass nurses. We are strong and united.

And we are going to send a clear message into every corner of the country.

To every government official.

Every hospital administrator.

Every premier.

Every health minister.

The days of nurses making nice are over.


Stand up with me and say it. No more making nice!

While you are up, say “Thank You – Merci – Miigwetch” to your colleague next to you. A hug, if you are comfortable, and tell them loudly that you are there for them.

They’ll hear us so loud and so clear we cannot be ignored.

Nurses bold, strong, and united.

And we aren’t going to stop.

Until every nurse has the support, they need to deliver the care patients deserve.

So for you on Facebook Live big virtual hugs, and know – your nurses’ union is there to fight for you, and we will fix it, just stick with us.

And now we will do what only union nurses know how to do: sing loud and dance like no one is watching – because, my friends, we are unstoppable.