B&W PEI Nurses protest

The 1960’s and 70’s brought with them significant changes to the profession of nursing. Arising from religious and military roots, nursing had long been viewed as a “calling” with service to others being a core value. Nurses had no recognized status and no recognized rights and were perceived by many, including hospital administration, as handmaidens to the physicians and thus were expected to do as they were directed. Nurses also had no legal protection and no code of ethics to guide their nursing practice. There were also no “scope of practice” guidelines so nurses often found themselves in positions of vulnerability as they were expected to deal with various situations even when they felt the duties did not fall within what they believed to be reasonable nursing practice or when they did not feel qualified to perform certain duties. Loyalty to the hospital and to the physicians regardless of the situation was the norm.

There was also no job security for nurses as there were no established processes for hiring and no terms or conditions of employment or compensation.

Many nurses were aware of the unfairness of these conditions. One of these nurse leaders, Vernita “Tut” Gallant, was determined to alter the status quo and she became a driving force behind the changes that were to come. Tut was a very active member of the Association of Nurses and a strong advocate for nurses’ rights especially relating to employment. She became the Chair of the Socio-Economic committee of the Association of Nurses and through that position she was able, with the help of others, to lay the ground-work for the establishment of a Nurses’ Union.

This proved to be quite a challenge because of the conflict of values that existed at the time. Nurses were perceived by some as having roles similar to “sisters of charity” so the idea of a union where nurses would be concerned about their personal and professional welfare was considered self-centered and was frowned-upon by many including some nurses. But, there was no mountain too high for this group of determined individuals.

As a result of these efforts, the Socio Economic Committee within the Association of Nurses of PEI was successful in reaching its goals and became the precursor to the Union. In April, 1974, the Prince Edward Island Nurses’ Act was amended to establish, within the Association of Nurses’ of PEI, the Provincial Collective Bargaining Committee (PCBC). The establishment of the Committee enabled Registered Nurses in PEI to bargain collectively for the first time.

Tut became the first President of the Bargaining Committee. Christine Kavanagh (Reynolds) was hired in 1975 as the first Executive Director/Labour Relations Officer of the Provincial Collective Bargaining Committee.

The National Federation of Nurses Unions (now CFNU and of which PCBC was a founding member) helped the process along. There was much education that needed to be done. Nurses had to be made aware of the role of the PCBC and how it could help them in terms of determining contract items. The whole idea of dues had to be broached and then implemented as well.

There were many meetings held and questionnaires distributed throughout the institutions where nurses worked. At the time these included the PEI Hospital, the Charlottetown Hospital, the Prince County Hospital, the Western Hospital, the O’Leary Hospital, the Stewart Memorial, the Kings County Memorial, the Souris Hospital and the PEI School of Nursing. Nurse representatives from each of these nine areas (or “Staff Associations”) formed the provincial body that became the first Provincial Bargaining Committee for Nurses on PEI.

At this time, the budgets for the School of Nursing and the hospitals came from the Hospital Services Commission. Medicare was introduced in Saskatchewan by Tommy Douglas in the 1960s. Up until then, patients had to pay to stay in the hospital so these patients were mostly the wealthy or veterans who had special support because of their service to their country. When the Hospital Services Commission came into being, they negotiated a deal with the Federal government who agreed to give transfer payments to the Province to help with health care expenses. The Hospital Services Commission then managed these funds for staff salaries so it was the Hospital Services Commission that PCBC was required to bargain with. The Hospital Services Commission senior staff as well as the hospital administrators were mostly male and were used to making their own decisions with respect to staffing and working conditions. Being required to negotiate these issues directly with nurses was a challenging and somewhat humbling process for many of them.

More PEINU history from 1987 – present can be found under the History drop down menu.