Walkout possible by Christmas, says head of union local

Nurses angry at slow pace of talks


Nunavut's nurses say they may walk off the job before Christmas unless the territorial government and their union reach a deal on better pay and benefits.

"We know we're at the point where we have nothing left," said Cheryl Young, the president of the nurses' local, which is part of the Nunavut Employees Union.

Young said nurses are angry at the NEU for a lack of progress in contract negotiations and "very angry" at the Government of Nunavut, because its officials have not brought a better compensation package for nurses to the negotiating table.

A meeting with nurses called by Alex Campbell, the GN's deputy minister of health, to discuss the new nursing recruitment and retention strategy released Nov. 9 did little to quell the growing anger.

The timing of the meeting – Sunday, Nov. 11 at 11:30 a.m. – meant many nurses like Young, whose husband is on a temporary posting with the RCMP in Afghanistan, couldn't attend Remembrance Day ceremonies scheduled at the same time.

At the meeting, operating room nurses from the Qikiqtani Hospital threatened to quit due to the strategy's lack of incentives for nurses to continue working in Nuna­vut. A mass exodus of these nurses would close the new hospital's operating room and require people needing even minor surgery to travel to Ottawa.

The strategy document says that over the next five years, Nunavut plans to increase the number of nurses in the territory by hiring 12 additional nurses and training 30 more Inuit nurses in the Kivalliq and Kitikmeot regions.

To trim the expenses associated with bringing in agency nurses and reduce staff turnover, the health department will develop a policy to fix the maximum pay rates and benefits for agency nurses and require the nurses to stay six weeks in communities.

Young said the nurses' response to the long-anticipated nursing strategy was "it sucks."

"There's no meat to it. It's all about reviewing, consulting and policy. When you hear those three words, you know it means they have nothing in mind. They have plans, but we know for the past 10 years where plans have taken us," she said.

Young said many nurses wonder what happened to a proposal for setting a $700 cap on monthly housing costs for nurses and offering a signing bonus of $2,500, followed by a six-month bonus of $5,000.

No nurse sits on the NEU's bargaining committee. Improvements in benefits and pay for nurses would have to be approved by the NEU.

Young said she's disappointed that the strategy does not mention housing benefits or a retention bonus, as nurses expected.

"The only way it's going to come to fruition is if the government brings it to the bargaining table," Young said.

Without this, she doesn't see how Nunavut would be able to recruit a relief pool of 12 nurses, mentioned in the strategy.

Young also dismissed the strategy's plan to encourage agency nurses to work for longer periods in Nunavut.

"The best we can hope for is usually a month," she said.

A better pay and benefits package for indeterminate nurses in Nunavut would be the best way to encourage agency nurses to work longer in the territory, she said.

As for educating more Inuit nurses, Young said the plan to expand nursing programs to Cambridge Bay and Rankin Inlet won't work unless experienced full-time nurses are in place to provide mentoring and backup to new graduates.

And these future Inuit nurses will also want better working conditions.

"How are you going to get young students to commit four years of their life when at the end of day they're going to be worse off than people who come out of high school and get a GN job with a Grade 12 education? You have to have something to offer people," Young said.

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