Almost all the nurses in the nine Cree communities were on the verge of quitting their jobs because they say the Quebec government has ignored their poor work conditions for years.

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come asked the federal government to step in with military medical units if nurses carried out their threat.

“We are very tired,” said Suzanne Roselle, president of the 65-member James Bay Northern Nurses Union. “It’s the same situation in all the communities. The government is not negotiating with us. We said, enough is enough.”

Of the 65, 50 to 55 said they would quit their jobs, according to reports. The nurses wanted a 20-per-cent salary increase, an extra 25 per cent northern allowance, better accommodations (including 20 new apartments just in Chisasibi) and more holidays.

Roselle said the government stopped negotiations with the nurses two weeks ago without explanation.

Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, told reporters that Quebec is punishing the Crees because of the Cree forestry lawsuit, filed last summer. Quebec has already suspended negotiations on funding for community projects because of the lawsuit.

Nurses in the Inuit communities joined James Bay nurses in making the same threat.

The nurses threatened to quit on March 29, but extended their deadline for two days. On March 30, they called a “study day,” in which they dealt only with emergency cases and administrative work, said James Bobbish, executive director of the Cree Health Board.

Quebec made a last-minute offer on April 1 that had nurses optimistic about a resolution to the crisis. Nurses were going into a telephone conference to discuss the offer as we went to press.

Roselle, a nurse in the Whapmagoostui clinic, wouldn’t give any details beyond saying, “It’s very good news. After 3:30 p.m. everything will change.”

Bobbish said the nurse enjoy broad Cree support: “The Grand Council, Health Board and band councils recognize their situation. We would like to see things better for the nurses.”

Bobbish said the nurses are overworked and face poor work conditions. This makes it harder to attract nurses to the North at a time when there is already a high demand for nurses in the South. He estimated the health board has a shortfall of 19 nurses.

The same problems are felt across the entire health board – for example with community social workers, Bobbish said.

Bobbish said the Defense Ministry hasn’t responded to the Cree request for emergency medical assistance should the nurses leave. The Red Cross and Moose Factory Hospital were also contacted, but they said they couldn’t provide any emergency help.

The health minister’s spokeswoman, Nicole Bastien, couldn’t be reached.