President Heather Smith’s report to AGM: We have opportunities, we face challenges, we need to stick together

UNA President Heather Smith speaks to delegates at the 2019 annual general meeting in Edmonton.

The election of a Liberal minority government yesterday with the New Democratic Party in a position to hold the balance of power means Canadians at last have a chance to see the creation of a national pharmacare program, United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith told the union’s annual general meeting in Edmonton this morning.

“The Liberals promised phramacare, but seemed to waver,” Smith said. “The New Democrats have the opportunity to make the government’s achievement on this file their achievement.”

“So this is good news,” she summed up, “or may be if we nurses and other advocates can keep the pressure on the new government.”

Last night’s election results also mean “there is the opportunity for pushback against provincial governments that want to weaken enforcement of the Canada Health Act, or that plan to introduce unconstitutional laws to weaken unions like UNA.”

But it also means there’s a chance Canadians could soon find themselves facing an election again — and therefore again facing risk an ideological government determined to roll back what Canadians have created in health care and other public services could be elected.

“So we need to keep our powder dry, and push for meaningful reforms while the conditions allow them,” she said.

Turning to Thursday’s provincial budget, Smith said that despite the Kenney Government’s pledges front-line services will not be impacted, “it has also made it clear that essential public services such as health care and education are targets for government cost cutting.”

“For anyone who understands the workings of the health care system generally …  as Alberta’s nurses certainly do, it is very hard to believe that front-line services will not be impacted by ‘restraint’ of the kind the government is suggesting,” Smith continued.

Turning to the recommendations of the government’s so-called “Blue Ribbon” Panel led by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, Smith noted that the panel was instructed only to look only for places to cut, not at appropriate ways to raise “the revenue our province needs to provide essential services and infrastructure for a prosperous future for all Albertans.”

Based on those terms of reference, the panel included in its report a recommendation to use legislation to roll back public employees’ wages — “and that means you,” Smith said. “That means your wages.”

As for the government’s interference in UNA’s collective bargaining by using legislation to break the terms of our collective agreement to give the MacKinnon Panel the time it needed to make its recommendations, Smith argued, it isn’t just a small delay, as the government claimed.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the cheers of the approximately 1,000 delegates, observers, staff and guests in the Edmonton EXPO Centre, “but I don’t think taking away our contractual right to an arbitrated wage reopener isn’t a big deal!”

“I fully expect we will need to push back — in the labour relations forum, in the court of public opinion, and in the courts of law — to defend our rights, and to defend public health care in Alberta and Canada,” Smith said as she wrapped up her report to members.

UNA members need to have a serious conversation about the appropriate tactics to confront this threat. “We will have an opportunity to start those conversations at our Demand-Setting Meeting, which will take place here in Edmonton, November 19 to 21,” she said.

“We will need to be determined, courageous and to think clearly — challenges, to be sure, but challenges we are educated as nurses to rise to and overcome.”

“Now is always the right time to remind governments and employers that nurses are the greatest experts on the health care system — they know what ails it and what it needs.” 

Smith concluded, to a standing ovation: “We may face a challenge, but nurses are challengers too! Stay strong! Solidarity!”