Toula Drimonis: Hey, Quebec, stop guilting our nurses — and pay them!

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I have a soft spot for nurses. If you have ever spent any amount of time in a hospital — or if anyone you love has — you know they’re the backbone of health care. It angered me to hear Premier François Legault tell nurses not to take “Quebec patients hostage” in their labour dispute. Nurses, getting ready to walk off the job next week as part of a massive public sector strike, are angry, too.

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“It’s a wild accusation to make,” Natalie Stake-Doucet, former president of the Quebec nurses’ association (OIIQ) and current faculty member at the Université de Montréal, tells me “when we’re the ones being held hostage every day in almost every CIUSSS in the province and told that, if we leave, something bad is going to happen to the patient.”

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Every time I’ve interviewed nurses they have communicated fatigue and distress. Mandatory overtime, staff shortages, low pay, high nurse-to-patient ratios, a three-year global pandemic — all have contributed to an enormous amount of mental and physical exhaustion.

Punishing work conditions have consequences. In Quebec, 44 out of every 100 nurses leave the profession before turning 35. Those are alarming numbers, especially in the context of our rapidly aging population.

You’d think our government would be doing everything it can to hold on to them.

Well, let’s see. … After giving themselves and all MNAs a generous 30-per-cent raise, our government decided to stop paying nurses the 3.5-per-cent public-sector bonus they had been receiving. They then offered them an underwhelming nine-per-cent salary increase over five years (subsequently upped to 10.3 per cent.)

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Now, compare that to the offer of a 21-per-cent increase over five years that Quebec’s provincial police received (which, by the way, they rejected) and you can see why Legault’s “guardian angels” are no longer playing nice.

A whopping 95 per cent of Quebec’s largest nurses’ union (FIQ) have voted in favour of a strike because they’re unhappy with the status quo. The premier’s rhetoric, appealing to the nurses’ sense of self-sacrifice, isn’t helping matters much. Especially when such pleas are common practice with female-dominated caregiving professions.

Stake-Doucet says she dislikes appeals to their sense of guilt. “Our public health care runs on guilt!” she says. “They’re repeating the same discourse we’ve been hearing for years from managers trying to force nurses to work overtime. Going on strike is about protecting patients. They won’t listen otherwise.”

It’s no secret that our premier can be paternalistic at times. Few Quebec women have forgotten his statement back in 2012 when he explained that “women aren’t as motivated by money as men are.” I see his point. As a woman I, too, pay my mortgage and grocery bills with high-fives and compliments about my writing. Money? Pfff. Such a crass subject!

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The Coalition Avenir Québec is not unique in this respect. Female-dominated professions (teachers, childcare workers, personal care aides) have historically been underpaid and undervalued. Research shows that people tend to devalue work associated with women. The fact that women do 3.2 times the amount of unpaid care work makes it hard for some to see professional care workers as … professionals. As the American sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn has pointed out, caregiving is viewed by much of society as both “priceless and worthless.”

This paternalistic outlook extends to the government’s negotiation tactics with nurses, which are overwhelmingly (90 per cent) women. The nurses I know love their jobs, but they also deserve good pay and good working conditions.

“It’s unendingly frustrating to be treated as spoiled children instead of professionals,” Stake-Doucet says. “Going on strike is not holding patients hostages. It’s the only thing we have left to fight for our rights.”

The truth is our health care system is being propped up by a majority female workforce. They deserve respect — not condescending guilt trips.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X (formerly Twitter) @toulastake

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