Before 1973, dozens of nursing associations in Ontario were forced to bargain contracts with their individual health-care facilities. With 85 independent nurses’ associations across the province, wages and conditions varied widely, and the profession lacked collective power to advocate for better compensation and environments to support safe, high-quality patient care.
That all changed on October 13, 1973, when those 85 separate associations voted to establish a central body to bargain for nurses throughout Ontario – the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA). Today, the association represents more than 65,000 registered nurses and health-care professionals working in hospitals, community clinics, public health, long-term care, industry and home care, as well as 18,000 nursing student affiliates.
“ONA’s role has always been to speak out on behalf of members and to strive to improve nurses’ working conditions and their practice environments, so nurses and health-care professionals can focus on their vital role – providing quality patient care,” says ONA President Vicki McKenna, RN.
As ONA marks its 45th anniversary, McKenna says, it looks back with pride on many achievements, including higher compensation and better working conditions for nurses provincewide. Many contracts now include a “professional responsibility clause” – providing nurses a process to advocate for improved staffing when there aren’t enough nurses to safely care for patients, and to improve systems and supports that enable safe practice. More nurses now have a seat at the table on finance committees and other administrative bodies responsible for decision-making at health-care facilities.
The association’s political advocacy and public-awareness campaigns have further increased health and safety protections for nurses and patients, and have given nurses greater influence on the conditions under which they deliver patient care. For example, ONA led in the development of new standards to protect against injury from needles and other medical sharp devices. More recently, it has achieved progress against workplace violence within hospitals, with work underway to make improvements across the entire health-care sector. If nurses are safe, so are their patients.
In a constantly evolving health-care system and in the face of public health crises such as the 2003 SARS outbreak, ONA has successfully overcome many challenges. And it has a major challenge in today’s health-care environment – a significant shortage of registered nurses (RNs) in health-care facilities.
“When I speak with nurses, they tell me they are very concerned about the impact of understaffing on their ability to practise their profession safely and in the best interests of patients,” McKenna says. “The stories from the front lines are clear. We simply don’t have enough registered nurses, and those who are working are putting in excessive overtime. The workloads and the stress are affecting nurses’ health and well-being.”
Ontario’s RN-to-population ratio has been the lowest in Canada for the past three years. According to ONA, more than a decade of inadequate funding and personnel cuts in hospitals and other care facilities has produced a shortage of 10,000 registered nurses in the province.
Nurses have a regulated professional accountability to advocate on behalf of their patients and to deliver safe, high-quality care, says McKenna. “But too often, nurses don’t have control over their working environment. If staffing is inadequate and they have too many patients to care for, they can’t practise safely, and their patients can suffer as a result.”
Addressing the RN shortage and increasing health-care funding overall are a major focus of ONA’s current advocacy initiatives.
“As we have always done, ONA will work to elevate issues that affect patient care, work with other like-minded labour organizations and health coalitions, and work to effect change at the political level,” says the association president.
“We are advocating alongside other unions for increased health-care funding, including the resources to hire more nurses, so that Ontarians have the health care they deserve.”