The Union of Northern Workers met with nurses Wednesday evening to address allegations of poor working conditions revealed earlier this month in a strongly worded letter to the NWT’s Health and Social Services Authority.

Several members requested the meeting to discuss workplace concerns, said Frank Walsh, union local 11 president. All union members were welcome to attend but reporters were barred from the event.

“Quite frankly, it was one of the longest union meetings I’ve ever attended,” he said. “A lot of people vented.”

The new Stanton Territorial Hospital is facing staff shortages but this is nothing new, said Frank Walsh, union local 11 president.
NNSL file photo

“To get into what they were venting about would be to get into the concerns (in the letter),” he continued.

The letter, dated May 2019 and signed by the “Nurses of Northwest Territories,” described a shortage of nurses at Stanton.

“Staffing is a huge concern at Stanton Hospital,” it stated.

The letter also describes a “daily struggle” to find nurses and beds that is putting patients at risk and has hurt the quality of care at the hospital.

Some nurses forced to work overtime, “after working a full shift as there (was) no one to care for the patient,” reads the letter.

It also said surgical operations are routinely canceled due to staff shortages.

The letter was written in regards to the old Stanton, but predicted the problems would persist in the new building.

“It’s been a longtime struggle for Stanton to retain and recruit nurses,” said Walsh. “It’s nothing that’s really, really new.”

In response to the letter, Sue Cullen, CEO of the Northwest Territories Health and Services Authority, listed efforts to retain and hire more staff.

“We have challenges when recruiting for skilled health and social services positions; this is especially true in nursing,” she stated in an email. “Across Canada nurses and health professionals are in high demand, we are not exempt from this pressure.”

All Local 11 members — including those who didn’t sign the letter — were invited to Wednesday’s meeting to discuss next steps.

Walsh said Local 11 wanted “a better workplace, better working conditions and a hope to see some results.”

He hopes to return to joint consultation between union local and employer representatives, which stalled in the wake of the transition to the new building, and the recent conclusion of collective bargaining.

“We need to re-engage both the employer and the union,” he said, explaining that Wednesday’s meeting produced stronger insight into work conditions.

Beyond the Cullen’s letter, Walsh said there has been no face-to-face dialogue with the employer, which he said would be the first step.

“The employer runs the workplace, but we work in the workplace. We are the front lines. We live it 24/7 and the employer could probably take some value from its employees in trying to resolve some of these issues.”

“We’re nurses, we’re x-ray techs, we’re lab techs, we’re all professionals,” he said.

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...