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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

My mother, a nurse who worked for three decades at a large Toronto hospital, liked to talk about the time she and her colleagues were picketing outside and a driver slowed down as he passed. “Florence Nightingale would turn in her grave!” he yelled.

Despite this helpful observation, they kept marching in the park next to the hospital. I like to think of my late mother as a bridge between the nurses of the past and the present: She was taught nursing by nuns and was judged harshly if she didn’t arrange a patient’s flowers properly. But she was also one of the first members of the Ontario Nurses’ Association, founded in 1973 to advance the rights of a profession that had been, until then, hardly regarded as a profession at all. They wanted more pay, and they wanted more respect.

If she were around, my mom would be distressed to see her fellow nurses fighting the same battles nearly 50 years later. She might even have been moved to use her strongest profanity, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Because what we’ve seen this year, when nurses stretched their physical and mental limits to save COVID-19 patients, is that attitudes toward their profession remain patronizing, dismissive and positively Victorian.

In Alberta, for example, the government is seeking a 3-per-cent pay cut – which it euphemistically calls a “rollback” – from its nursing sector. This, of course, comes after a year of praising the heroes of health care for putting their lives and mental health on the line during the pandemic. It’s too bad we can’t eat empty words, or we’d all be fat as manatees.

In Ontario, nurses’ unions are fighting the government’s Bill 124, which capped their compensation increases at 1 per cent a year (effectively a pay cut, when you factor inflation in). Police and firefighters, largely male-dominated professions, are not covered by the legislation, but nurses, working in a field that is more than 90 per cent female, are. Please send Mare of Easttown to solve this mystery.

In Quebec, the nursing situation is so dire that a group of emergency room doctors put out a letter begging the government for solutions: Their nursing colleagues need better pay, they wrote, and also an end to forced overtime, and better working conditions.

The letter refers to nurses as “guardian angels,” and while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure it’s helpful to perpetuate the idea that nurses are selfless beings dropped from on high and not, you know, people with children to feed and complex jobs to perform. Angels can live on sunlight and whatever else angels eat. Humans can’t.

A couple of months ago, at the height of Ontario’s third wave, I interviewed more than a dozen nurses and nursing professors to get a sense of how bad things were after a year of COVID. The answer was “very bad.” It wasn’t the care of patients that caused them anxiety, but the callousness of COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers who undermined their work. And what I heard, over and over, is that the pandemic was bringing to light cracks in the system – the understaffing and lack of respect they’d felt for years.

“I know I live in 2021 but when I’m in the hospital it feels like the 1950s,” one nurse told me. Many of them echoed the observation of an Ontario nurse, who said she heard the same refrain all the time: “This is what you signed up for, you get paid enough, you shouldn’t complain, you’re lucky to have a job.”

Much of our experience of nursing is driven by history and gendered expectations (which are further complicated in the cases of racialized nurses). In the public imagination, they are still the bedside helpers taking temperatures and fluffing pillows. In reality, they’re highly educated and skilled medical professionals, often pursuing specialized training and graduate degrees to work in particular fields.

Yet this expertise is not reflected in the world: They aren’t included at high-level public-health decision-making, they aren’t asked to appear on TV news to give opinions about health crises. They aren’t encouraged to advocate for themselves or a better public-health system. In fact, they’re often discouraged or even punished by the hospitals they work for.

So I completely understand when nurses complain if doctors are paid more for doing the same duties, whether it’s vaccinating or working as nurse-extenders in intensive care. I get why they complain that doctors were better compensated for their pandemic work while nurses in Ontario, for example, received only a tiny and temporary bump in pay. This idea that they’re supposed to be quiet and subservient and happy with what they’ve got is, thankfully, being tossed out the window.

Hopefully, a new generation will throw other bits of useless old tradition out the window. One of the things I found striking and surprising when writing about the crisis in nursing is that applications to Canadian nursing schools have shot up. People – women and increasingly men – recognize what a terrific career it can be, one where every day brings the chance to improve a stranger’s life.

The problem is not recruiting nurses, but retaining them. That is, making the profession a place where they’re suitably compensated for the difficult work they do, allowed to work in fully staffed environments, and given control over their hours so that they can have a life outside the hospital. These are accepted as basic working conditions in other professions. It’s only nurses we expect to lead lives of noble self-sacrifice. Change that, and maybe Florence Nightingale can finally have a nice rest.

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