Demonstrators rally outside the campaign office of PC candidate Sal Sorrento, in St. Catharines. HELEN TRAN

International Nurses Day demonstrators call public attention to Bill 124

On International Nurses’ Day, some 80 local registered nurses and their friends and family gathered to hold a rally in front of Ontario Progressive Conservative candidate Sal Sorrento’s office in St. Catharines.

While Sorrento’s office was locked and most of the lights turned off, foot traffic was busy on Facer street, with a sea of supporters in pink T-shirts. Demonstrators held signs with various slogans bringing attention to what they asserted was a nursing crisis, and the impacts of Bill 124: “Bill 124 is Bad for your Health,” “From Hero to Zero,” and “Giving 100% to get 1%.”

Drivers passing the rally would often honk their horns in support. Led by Nurse Annie Mazmanian who helped organize the rally, the attendees shouted various rallying cries:

“Hey hey, ho ho, Bill 124 has got to go!”

“Shame, shame, shame!”

“When do we want respect? NOW!”

Turnout was high, said organizers, with some 80 nurses and nurse supporters showing up for the rally, which was meant to bring the public’s attention to the negative impact of Bill 124 on the nursing profession and patient care in Ontario.

The bill, which the Ford government passed in 2019, capped wage rises for registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and health-care professionals to one percent annually, as well as worsened, say opponents, several existing issues, mainly healthcare staff shortages and an already low nurse-to- patient ratio.

In a media statement released by the Ontario Nurses Association, President Cathryn Hoy, RN, said: “Ontario nurses are leaving the profession, primarily driven by the devastating impact of the policies of the Ford government. Ford’s wage-suppression legislation, Bill 124, is incredibly disrespectful and targets female dominated professions. It directly impacts nurse retention and recruitment and has had a profoundly negative effect on our members’ ability to provide care to patients, residents and clients during the worst global health crisis in a century.”

While candidates from all political parties were invited to attend, the NDP was the only party in attendance. Ontario NDP Candidate for St. Catharines Jennie Stevens (joined by Wayne Gates of Niagara Falls) was vocal in her support of nurses.

“As a former healthcare worker, I stood shoulder to shoulder with every sector,” said Stevens. “We hear nurses and see them — the Conservatives didn’t even show up for the debate this morning. There has been radio silence. We will repeal Bill 124 the same day we take our place in the government.”

There was a break mid-rally for key figures to speak.

Loretta Tirabassi, ONA Bargaining Unit President, said that Ontario was facing a “healthcare tsunami, that has been building for years. But we’re going to care for you, because that’s our job and that’s not going to stop. But what we’re facing is a lack of trust in this government. The moral baggage on nurses is far too heavy.”

Leila Paugh, paramedic (ALS PCP) and Chair of the Indigenous Council of CUPE Ontario, spoke with passion. “Nurses are grossly understaffed and horribly overworked— this has to change. We are unable to help the community because of understaffing. This was happening before Covid-19— nurses were and continue to be overstretched and underpaid. And yet, the Ford government introduced Bill 124…and we are still reeling from it.”

The speeches referenced and drew attention to several key issues affecting nurses: depression and anxiety, burnout, early retirement, and being stretched thin as nurses were pulled between fighting for what they say was fair, while adhering to the ethics and codes of their practice as they continue to care for patients despite what many describe as abysmal working conditions.

Many nurses spoke out in their support of repealing Bill 124, under condition of anonymity.

“It’s terrible,” said one young nurse. “Nurses deserve a lot more than less than 1 percent of a wage increase. There’s a nursing crisis and Doug Ford isn’t helping us at all —we need this bill gone. We need Doug Ford gone.”

Pray that no one in your family gets sick right now

“Healthcare and nurses have been pinned down enough,” said another nurse. “We’ve seen this crisis coming for years and no one has been doing anything about it — the Conservative government has been selling us out to the highest bidder and the healthcare system is crumbling.”

“Pray that no one in your family gets sick right now,” said another rally attendee, in reference to the worsening nurse-to- patient ratio in Ontario.

In another section of the ONA’s media statement, President Hoy noted that it was a “sad irony” that nurses were holding a rally to protest the disrespect of nurses by the Ford government “on a day which people across the globe honour nurses.”

As the day wore on and the sun beat down, rally attendees continued walking along Facer street, waving their signs and shouting supportive slogans. As traffic picked up, more drivers honked their support, adding to the cacophony.

“Nurses, united, will never be defeated!” The group chanted. “Nurses, united, will never be defeated!”