Debbie Forward looked back at 24 years at the helm of the Registered Nurses Union of Newfoundland and Labrador Tuesday in a tenure punctuated by a strike in 1999 that got them banned from the lobby of the Confederation Building and a showdown in 2009 with then premier Danny Williams.
Forward, who started nursing 40 years ago, gave her last address to the biennial convention at the Delta Hotel in St. John’s before stepping down next month.
“I’ll never forget 1999, having rallies on the steps of Confederation Building, not knowing if our members would show up,” she said, recounting their fight with then premier Brian Tobin. “Well, we didn’t have to worry about that, because they came out in the hundreds.”
She recalled how members rallied in the lobby of the legislature, banging their picket signs on the floor until someone complained they were chipping the marble.
Protests were banned from the building after that.
“That was unity and solidarity like I had never seen or experienced before,” she said.
During the showdown with Williams in 2009, Forward said, the premier insisted his sources said most nurses would be happy with a deal on the table.
The union put it to a vote. Sixty-four per cent rejected it. Forward said her numbers predicted 66 per cent would.
The dispute was finally settled in negotiation.
Forward highlighted some of her primary goals as president, including a long battle to increase staffing levels and end the cycle of overtime and sick leave that has characterized the profession for many years.
She said nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador currently punch in 250,000 hours of overtime a year.
Overtime and sick leave, she said, cost the province an extra $45 million annually.
“Research shows more RNs, staffed properly and working in healthy environments, will improve our health-care system and save the province money,” she said.
Forward said she is pleased Health Minister Dr. John Haggie has committed to breaking that cycle, and only regrets she won’t be around to see the results.
She said the fact incoming president Yvette Coffey will play a role in the province’s 10-year Health Accord Task Force speaks volumes about that commitment.
“I am confident that Yvette will be a strong, powerful voice for our union. Having a seat at that table will ensure that we are not on the menu.”
After her speech, Forward said she has three main things in mind for her retirement: “Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation.”
She said she’s looking forward to spending more time with family, including her granddaughter, but admits travel is out of the question for now.
Asked if she misses nursing as such, Forward said she never left.
“I believe I’m still nursing, I’m just nursing in a different role,” she said. “I miss connections with patients and those conversations and being on the front line.
“My connection with my members and my conversations with them on what’s happening on the front line has really helped keep me grounded in the realities of the system.”
Before Forward’s address, the minister made a virtual appearance to offer his thoughts and answer some questions from members.
Haggie also had a few flattering words for the outgoing president, saying she has laid the groundwork for a new approach to nursing.
“Your successors will go further because they’re stood on your shoulders, so I wouldn’t worry about not having been able to finish this particular piece. It will be done.”
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram.