RNAO’s 21st annual Queen’s Park Day goes virtual

My deepest thanks to RNAO’s Communications Assistant, Alicia Saunders, and our Director of Communications Marion Zych, for the excellent recap of our 21st Queen’s Park Day (QPD). Close to 200 registered nurses, nurse practitioners, nursing students, politicians and members of the public joined RNAO on Feb. 25.

As one of RNAO’s annual signature political action events, this year’s iteration looked a bit different due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Participants joined our President Morgan Hoffarth and our CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun for a four-hours afternoon event that included remarks from the premier, minister of health and leaders of the NDP, Liberal and Green parties, as well as NDP and Liberal party health critics. As a non-partisan association, RNAO has built solid partnerships with all parties to ensure nurses’ perspectives are shared around the decision-making tables of government, and that the issues and challenges of nurses, and the solutions we offer are always considered a priority.

At the beginning of the event, Grinspun told attendees they would leave “feeling energized and armed with new knowledge.” She and Hoffarth shared information on some of the key health issues RNAO has advocated for this year, specifically measures needed to combat COVID-19, the opioid overdose crisis, the funding and staffing crisis in long-term care (LTC) and health system transformation. Participants were encouraged to speak up and use their voices to ask Ontario’s politicians the tough questions that will ultimately lead to an improvement of the health and well-being of individuals and communities across the province. “What’s good for Ontarians is good for nursing,” Grinspun said.

After each party’s presentation, RNAO members were able to ask the political leaders and critics questions through the virtual chat function. Question topics included the measures to help end the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for more consumption and treatment services sites, increased staffing in LTC, pharmacare, housing and environmental determinants of health.

Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott was first to speak and focused on the work the Ontario government is doing to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the second phase of its vaccination program. She also acknowledged that RNs and NPs who want to help administer vaccinations will be able to do so soon through Ontario’s matching portal. She announced that the Ontario government is increasing funding by $2.1 million per year for the next two years to support the RNAO-administered Nursing Education Initiative program.

During her presentation, Minister Elliott acknowledged the need to work together to improve the health-care system and to combat COVID-19. “There is still a lot of important work ahead of us to ensure we beat COVID-19 and to build a more patient-centred health-care system. I know together we will achieve both goals,” she said. Grinspun pleaded with the minister to vaccinate all health professionals fronting patient care, ahead of firefighters and others. Our CEO shared that agency nurses working in ICUs are yet to be vaccinated, and only seven percent of nurses working in home care have received the vaccine. The minister committed to remedy the situation.

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Official Opposition – NDP – was joined by her party’s long-time health critic, France Gélinas. Horwath took time to highlight the important work of nurses in Ontario during this past year. She also commented on how Ontario is not only dealing with the pandemic, but several other ongoing crises, including issues with the LTC system, opioid poisoning, lack of mental health supports and homelessness. She noted the health-care system is crucial and something everyone values. “The delivery of health services is one of the most important priorities of Ontarians and Canadians when asked what their taxes should be spent on,” she said. Gélinas echoed this statement and voiced her concern that nurses were not included in the province’s initial response to COVID-19. “RNAO was vocal from the start. Why weren’t nurses at the table? Why weren’t they listened to?” she asked. “We should listen to you and to everyone on the frontline, guided by public health.”

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and health critic John Fraser emphasized the importance of RNAO’s ongoing advocacy work. The liberal party has heard RNAO ‘loud and clear’ on the opioid crisis, Del Duca said. He also shared that his party is conducting public consultations as it begins to shape its platform. He encouraged RNAO members to participate and share their views. When it comes to pharmacare, Del Duca says that getting a national plan in place is vital. “I agree that filling this missing piece in our national health-care system is essential.” Fraser said that RNAO has worked to put pressure on the government to make the right decisions. “Sometimes what you need to do is ask the really tough questions and point people in the right direction, and that’s what you’ve done,” he said.

Mike Schreiner, leader of Ontario’s Green Party, was also at the event to share his gratitude for the work nurses have done over this past year while highlighting the need to make sure nurses have a safe work environment and the support and pay they deserve. He also noted that COVID-19 has shone a light on the long-standing issues in LTC that predate the pandemic, something RNAO has been outspoken about for a long time. “COVID has highlighted that we have to prioritize care over profits. We need to make these investments now to hire the staff to care for our elders,” Schreiner said. RNAO will continue to advocate for a Nursing Home Basic Care Guarantee to be implemented in all homes across the province and country to give residents the care they deserve and the staff the supports they need.

Premier Doug Ford joined the session to provide closing remarks. He recalled an experience he had when his brother Rob – former Toronto mayor – was receiving cancer treatment. Rob wanted to get out of bed but fell while the premier was helping him. It was late at night and when Ford went for help, he noticed there were only a few nurses on the floor. He had to get help from security in the hospital, but says the experience stuck with him and he vowed that never again would there not be enough nurses. The premier commented on the important role nurses have played and that the government needs to be there to continue to lift up the nursing workforce. “You’re absolute heroes,” he said. “We need to make sure moving forward that we’re there financially to support.” The Premier commended RNAO’s work and thanked our CEO for always providing him with advise.   

Thanking the Premier for being a good partner, Grinspun took a moment to remind him of what needs to be done to suffocate the pandemic. She also insisted on the need to urgently hire more RNs in all sectors and ensuring there is one NP per LTC home. She also pressed him on administering the COVID-19 vaccine 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week when the supply arrives and to engage nurses, along with physicians and pharmacists in such a rollout. The premier told Grinspun: “We’ll make sure we ramp up and have enough people to have our health-care system moving forward.”

Although participants at this year’s event missed the opportunity to interact one-on-one with their MPPs, the gathering was an evident success in that it provided an opportunity for nurses to be heard and respected by decision-makers at Queen’s Park.

The latter portion of this year’s virtual meeting featured the release of the RNAO Nurse Practitioner Task Force report, Vision for Tomorrow. An engaging panel discussion with members of the task force, joined by task force co-chairs Dr. Doris Grinspun and Dr. Elissa Ladd, rounded out the day (see next article). Anyone who was unable to attend is invited to read more about the report and its eight recommendations and actions for building a stronger NP workforce as part of Ontario’s health system transformation agenda. The premier shared that he was open to boosting the number NPs in Ontario. “We’ve put a commitment together over the next four years to hire 10,800 RNs, close to 5,000 RPNs, and then with the nurse practitioners, by all means… let’s get a number on the table because we need you, we really do,” says Ford.

The saved livestream of this year’s virtual event is now available. Members can also read the live Twitter coverage.