Members of one of Quebec’s largest union federations gathered outside the Ministry of Health in Montreal on March 15 for a rally criticizing the ministry’s budget plans for health and social workers in the North.

The Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN) says that $25 million of last year’s budget that is supposed to fund an attraction and retention premium for social workers, medical lab technicians, community workers and educators in Northern regions has yet to be allocated. The FSSS argues that this premium is crucial to fully staff health and social services in Northern Cree and Inuit communities.

“About 30% of positions are vacant right now,” said Laurier Goulet, vice-president of the FSSS and the union’s lead negotiator, his down jacket and gloves insulating him from the afternoon’s cold wind. “We want [Minister Yves Bolduc] to act; it’s been awhile and these people are waiting for that money.”

About 50 people gathered outside Bolduc’s office on Union St. in Montreal to show their impatience, waving flags and chanting slogans in French, English and, occasionally, Cree.  Their horns and whistles echoed down the concrete canyons of the city’s downtown, drawing the attention of passersby. The atmosphere shifted from joviality to mild anger as the music of the early protest faded into speeches. Security guards waited inside the glass doors of the ministry building, but never had reason to do more than stand attentively.

Apart from filling empty positions, the FSSS says an attraction and retention premium would help offset the expenses of living in the North. The union argues the cost of living in the North causes people to move to more urban areas, where the cost of living is far lower. They say this is aggravating their shortage of skilled workers in social services.

“People have to confront these [living costs] when they go there,” said FSSS president Francine Lévesque. “The government has done nothing, and keeps trying to [cut costs] on the backs of these people.”

Rebecca Swallow, union president for the employees of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, said the absence of the premium has put great strain on the people currently working in Cree communities like Chisasibi and Mistissini.

“Some people are working two jobs at a time right now,” she said, shaking her head. “This is the reality. [The government] has the budget, they have the funds to get this going, but they’re stalling.”

The FSSS says the ministry proposes to use half of this fund for more training programs, to review workers’ structure and to invest in tools to promote the Plan Nord. But while the FSSS acknowledges they would benefit from this, Goulet says this plan won’t do.

“We don’t think [these plans] are a bad idea, but we don’t want it funded with our money,” he said, his voice rising as if still addressing the crowd. “This money is for the workers, not the employer. Not the government.”

Nurses in the north have benefited from an attraction and retention premium since 1999, when it was applied to combat a nursing shortage. The FSSS says this premium, worth between $14,000 and $17,000 annually for each nurse, should be extended to nurses’ colleagues in hospitals and other social workplaces. They say they have been asking for parity for 12 years. According to Lévesque, the government promised the $25 million would be dedicated to establishing this premium.

Negotiations started in May of last year and were supposed to wrap up by September, says Laurier. But there still is no decision on the matter. A representative for the Ministry of Health said that, as a matter of policy, the ministry does not comment on any ongoing negotiations. He would not confirm or deny the 30% job vacancy statistic, nor would he speak on the $25 million that the FSSS says was budgeted for the attraction and retention premium.

Stagnating negotiations caused the FSSS to turn to other measures. Its leadership decided a demonstration and further mobilization tactics are needed to bring more visibility to the issue. In doing so, they hoped to make their slogan clear to Bolduc: “It’s time to get serious.”