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Premier’s anti-union bias had deadly consequences at Halifax’s Northwood Centre

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Events of the last few weeks have provided a disturbingly strong case that Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil’s well-worn, anti-union biases prevented him from making the right decisions on fighting the Coronavirus in Nova Scotia’s long-term care (LTC) facilities.

A series of mistakes that included the government ignoring weeks of warnings from frontline health care workers and their unions, had particularly deadly consequences in Atlantic Canada’s largest LTC facility.

For those of us who have been advocating for badly-needed changes to staffing levels, working conditions and wages for workers in LTC for decades, it has been gut-wrenching to watch.

‘Litany of mistakes’

On March 31, the provincial government in British Columbia – a province which was well into the throes of an outbreak in a North Vancouver nursing home by mid-March – made a critical, life-saving change to staffing challenges in that sector. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the government would become the employer of all LTC facilities. They immediately implemented a series of changes, including an end to employees working in multiple facilities, while giving significant raises and guaranteed full-time hours to those workers. 

Shortly thereafter, Canada’s Public Health Agency released guidelines to limit nursing home workers from working at multiple LTC facilities.  

As Andrew Rankin reported on May 2 in the Chronicle Herald, the Nova Scotia government would take two weeks to enact that guideline. The policy that was saving lives in British Columbia would not come into effect in Nova Scotia until April 23. 

Meanwhile, as early as March 13, Nova Scotia healthcare unions were united in their call to the provincial health department to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – N95 masks specifically – for all frontline workers. 

Those calls were ignored. 

On April 13, when Jason MacLean, the president of NSGEU, raised the staffing issue in a news release quoting nurses who have been moved from the Halifax Infirmary to bolster forces at Northwood, the premier chastised him, saying, “Now is not the time to discuss staffing models.”

In the Halifax Examiner that same week, Tim Bousquet called McNeil’s hypocrisy on protecting healthcare workers sharply into question:

McNeil, of course, refused the invitation to self-reflection. Instead, he accused the very workers who are risking their lives of opportunism.  

See also: Nova Scotia health care workers demand assurances on safety equipment

On April 16, Mark Hancock, the president CUPE – Canada’s largest healthcare union, explained in precise detail in a YouTube video how the BC NDP government had stopped the spread of the Covid_19 virus in nursing homes. “Nearly half of all deaths from COVID 19 in Canada are linked to long-term care or nursing homes,” explained Hancock. “Everyone is asking how we got here. CUPE members know exactly how. And we know how to fix it.” 

At a news briefing Wed. April 22, Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, surprised many by joining in on the union-bashing, again upbraiding NSGEU for what he called, “fear-mongering and hyperbole” with the news release. The Herald’s John McPhee reported on it.

On April 28, during a daily Covid briefing with Dr. Strang, McNeil was reminded that premiers across Canada were increasing pay for those working to keep our seniors safe, with a so-called pandemic premium. As Jennifer Henderson reported in the Examiner: 

“Ontario and Quebec have increased the pay for the continuing care assistants, nurses, and dietary and cleaning staff working in nursing homes during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a recognition that those workers are both needed and putting their own health at risk. But Premier Stephen McNeil has rejected calls to give this province’s frontline workers similar recognition; in Nova Scotia, they’ll continue on with the same low pay they’ve always received.

As Dr. Christine Saulnier of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives stated on Twitter, 93% of COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia (27/29) were residents of nursing homes. 

She quoted Dr Samir Sinha, one of the country’s foremost geriatrics experts, from the May 2 Andrew Rankin article, “I think what needs to come out of this is an entire rethink of how we’ve been actually providing care for older adults” 

“Many people have been demanding change for many years,” said Saulnier.

Sadly, there are likely going to be lawsuits stemming from these deaths at Northwood. Despite several pleas from myself and others to Dr. Strang and Premier McNeil to adopt the B.C. model going back to early April, it would appear an anti-union bias coupled with an unwillingness to listen to nurses and other frontline workers, became a major barrier to evidence-based decision-making.

FULL DISCLOSURE: John McCracken worked for CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees for 26 years, 10 in Ontario and 16 in NS and NL. CUPE represents thousands of long-term care employees in more than 50 nursing homes here in Nova Scotia.

See also: Is ageism colouring the response to care home deaths?

See also: Staff shortages at long term care facilities are unsustainable, workers say

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  1. yes I agree with all of the above, it is important to listen to health Care workers when they speak, A Premier that is not open minded and can not listen to trained individuals should not be Premier of a Province . This is my opinion only.

    1. He and Strang took a calculated risk on withholding PPE from frontline workers. And they lost. It cost almost 30 people their lives.

  2. Premier MacNeil should be ASHAMED of himself, Thanking us frontline workers for a show, but not willing to put his money where his mouth is. ITS NOT HIM RISKING HIS LIFE😠

    1. You’re a ‘healthcare hero’, as long as you ‘do what you’re told’. When you question authority, ie. the premier, all bets are off.

  3. McNeil is still very closed minded when it comes to NS healthcare and apparently the LTC facilities. It will be remembered when election time rolls around! The people of the province, for the most part, have done their job which cost McNeil nothing. He has really fumbled when it came to front line workers at the LTC centers, especially at Northwood. He expects top notch care from understaffed and under paid workers. Disgusting!!!

  4. Premier McNeil was also the one who decreased monies to seniors homes , 2016 , also played down the work done by Continuing care workers. We have been fighting for money for health care. Are you listening now.!

  5. There were almost 50,000 Nova Scotians without a doctor heading into this crisis. So quite frankly im surprised at the people singing praises for MacNeil. There’s been no evidence thus far of any particular concern for the healthcare needs of Nova Scotians, why do people accept his live updates as sufficient proof that he’s concerned and/or actually DOING anything other than grandstanding? He has tried to put the blame on the general public for not ‘staying the blazes home’, while almost all the deaths in the province have been in Northwood, a facility that pleaded for help in the early days of this crisis. So what, I would ask, has he done that constitutes hard work? Seems to me that accolade belongs to the frontline workers putting their own health on the line every day to care for these dear seniors. And why didn’t Strang take a day off from his safe platform in front of the cameras and spend it at Northwood as soon as that situation started to go sideways? As far as I’m concerned, they’re more interested in making the general public feel to blame for their own shortcomings in handling this situation.

  6. Unless you have directly been in involved with union and government it is hard to understand the hate / love relationship that they have . Government parties (some worse than others )put the “ wall “ up as soon as the union speaks . They have the know-it -all attitude that causes direct hardship in a lot of work places . Look at the teachers union and the fight they had to endure to try to get the government to get or try to our school system back to rights. I think we need to look at the parties track record not the fake promises when we go to the ballot box next!

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