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Dehors Barrette: Quebec health workers fight austerity

Deborah Murray and Chantal Sundaram

February 26, 2018

On January 29, at 8am, a young nurse in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Emilie Ricard, published a Facebook photo of herself in tears. It was taken after finishing a night shift at the end of which she had to cover 70-76 patients. “I am broken by my profession, I’m ashamed of the poor care that I do my best to provide. My healthcare system is sick and dying,” she said in her post.

This “cri du coeur” went viral. But one of the key reasons it did is that Ricard addressed Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette directly about the irony of the “success” of his healthcare reforms since 2014. She described a horrific situation of overwork that prevents proper treatment, and drew attention to growing contract employment in nursing, and the lack of demand even for permanent positions in situations where overwork is debilitating both to nurses and patients.

On February 24, 25 nurses staged a sit-on at the Pierre-Le Gardeur hospital in Terrebonne. It was not the first: in Trois-Rivières, Sorel, Laval, le Suroît, nurses across Quebec for weeks had been publicly denouncing overwork in the hospital system. Also on February 24, in Montreal, 1,500 people delivered a petition signed by over 50,000 people in one week to demand the resignation of Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, and ended their demonstration at Liberal Premier Phillipe Couillard’s office.

The organizers were clear that ultimately this is not only about Barrette, but about the Quebec Liberal government’s austerity agenda as a whole. And premier Couillard is standing firm behind his Minister.

A party of the street

Three things came together to make this moblization possible. The growing public anger over what Emilie Ricard described was incensed by a new public scandal: the agreement struck by the Liberals with medical specialists, who earn an average salary of $450,000. Given the crisis in nursing, operating rooms that close at 4pm and overflowing hospital beds, the scandal over medical specialist pay has ignited anger in Quebec.

But the third ingredient to take this off Facebook and into the street was the political leadership of Quebec solidaire. It's significant that the call to the streets came from a sitting Member of the National Assembly: Amir Khadir, member for Quebec solidaire. Khadir is a doctor, and has always had a high political profile as an activist with Doctors without Borders and as a political advocate for taking back the healthcare system for the people, in the big picture.

In this fight, Khadir did the work of a rank and file member in the health care system calling out Barrette, and calling for action. He mobilized and pulled out others within his sector: while the petition was being circulated, he met with other health care workers and held a “kitchen meeting” in his home with nurses in the aftermath of Emilie Ricard’s post.

Solidaires pour la santé, pour une vraie égalité 

The slogans on the march to deliver the petitions spoke to widespread opposition to health care budget cuts on the front lines of service delivery, and the Liberals’ ignoring the continuing and horrendous degeneration of conditions of health care workers.

The march was called by Quebec solidaire but had visible contingents from important unions such as the Alliance du personnel professionel et technique des services sociaux, and the Federation de la santé et des services - CSN, along with those who have lost their jobs due to the ongoing austerity budget cuts that have targeted the frontline in the healthcare system – as well as citizens, parents and children. As QS spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said to the crowd on February 24: “We are all patients in a system that is sick.”

Doctors in solidarity

On February 17, Médecins québécois pour le régime public (Quebec doctors for a public system, the MQRP), published a letter denouncing the $500 million pay hike for medical specialists, calling it indecent. The Fédération médicale étudiante du Québec (the Quebec medical student federation) also published a letter demanding a more open debate on doctors’ salaries. And on February 25, the MQRP launched an open letter calling for the complete cancellation of the recent pay increases, with a call to doctors to sign on:

“We, Quebecois doctors who believe in a strong public system, oppose the recent salary increases negotiated by our medical federations. These increases are all the more outrageous as our nursing colleagues, attendants, and other professionals are experiencing very difficult working conditions while our patients live with lack of access to services due to the draconian cuts of the last few years and the centralization of power in the Ministry of Health. The only thing that seems to be immune to the cuts is our salary…

“Contrary to our premier’s declarations, we believe that there is a way to redistribute the resources of Quebec’s healthcare system to promote the health of the population and meet patients’ needs without pushing workers to the end of their rope.

“We, Quebec doctors, demand that the doctors’ salary increases be cancelled and that the resources of the system be better distributed for the good of healthcare workers and to assure health services that the Quebec population deserves.”


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