Canadians have a labor problem; there are 848,000 vacant jobs, according to a recent government report. A sector particularly affected by the shortage of personnel is the health sector and, specifically, nursing. This is a very sensitive area and the consequences of the shortage of workers irritate the public: emergency rooms closed on weekends in Winnipeg; upset patients in Montreal hospitals due to delays in care; or a slow ambulance system in Ottawa because many of the vehicles must queue to wait for someone to receive their patients,are just some of the most shameful examples.
It is common practice that nurses and male nurses are required to do mandatory overtime. They also have a large number of patients under their care. “Stress and anxiety are very high. We are afraid of making a mistake with the people under our care”, one of these workers from British Columbia wrote on her social media. In addition, some provincial governments flatly refuse an increase in wages. In Ontario, the most populous province in the country, nurses have not stopped demonstrating against a law —passed in 2019— that limits salary increases to 1% per year for public workers.
It is therefore not surprising that many nursing professionals throw in the towel or seek shelter in less precarious environments (for example, in private clinics); others think twice before entering the public network for the first time. In this regard, a 2022 report, produced by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, found “a 219.8% increase in nursing vacancies since 2017”.
Different provincial governments have launched initiatives to try to reduce the problem. Study grants and a more accentuated reconciliation between staff and hospital administrators are part of these tools. Also programs to recruit nurses and nurses in other latitudes. However, this last measure is not without criticism. Some experts denounce that recruitment efforts in Southeast Asia and West Africa may cause a weakening in the health systems of less developed nations.
Meeting with Justin Trudeau
A key element to curb this shortage is to improve working conditions, especially by increasing wages and making workloads less heavy (for example, eliminating mandatory overtime). In February, provincial premiers met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss federal transfers to healthcare. Currently, the provinces cover 78% of the budget and Ottawa the remaining 22%.
Trudeau offered some €31.7 billion for the next 10 years. Provincial premiers, with no real room to negotiate, reluctantly agreed to the proposal. Canadian healthcare—recognized throughout the world for its public, free, and universal nature—faces daunting challenges. The shortage of both female and male nurses is one of the most serious, but the modernization of facilities and the hiring of physicians are also urgent matters.
As if that were not enough, there is an x-file in the selection tests. In September 2022, only 51.4% of people taking the Quebec Nursing Order exam for the first time achieved a pass. In March of that same year, the rate was 71%, while in September 2021 it reached 81%. An investigation has been opened to find out what is happening.