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Amid pandemic chaos, CFNU President Linda Silas ends bid to lead Canadian Labour Congress

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Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions President Linda Silas. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) President Linda Silas, an engaging and articulate public voice for a national drug insurance plan, enhanced public health care, and the rights of all working people, said yesterday she is ending her campaign to lead the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

The global pandemic has upset a lot of plans and it was the continuing impact of COVID-19 that led Silas to reconsider her bid to lead Canada's national labour organization, which she announced in January 2020.

"The primary issue that keeps me awake at night is the state of Canada's health-care system," Silas said yesterday morning in a statement published on the CFNU's website.

She asked:

"What will our precious Canadian public health care -- already stretched thin before the pandemic -- look like once the emergency measures are lifted? Simply put, it will be sick and tired, just like the nurses and staff who have been holding it up on their backs this past year."

Therefore, said the registered nurse from New Brunswick, "with this huge challenge in front of us, I must stay focused on supporting Canada's nurses, who have put their faith and trust in me to lead them for the last 18 years."

That is good news for Canadian nurses, and not just the ones who have the good fortune to be members of unions affiliated with Silas's national organization.

It is not such good news, it is said here, for the CLC or the broader Canadian labour movement, which desperately needs a leader like Silas -- smart and passionate, articulate in both official languages, with a foot in both traditional industrial and public-service trade unionism, and with a working person's understanding of the destruction wrought by neoliberal economics on the lives of Canadian families.

As she put it in her statement yesterday, "the pandemic has revealed the flaws and vulnerabilities in our economy, in our public services and in the way workers are treated."

"Addressing the challenges and stark inequities that COVID-19 has exacerbated will require the combined experience and expertise of us all," she said.

Even if Silas had not won the election, the CLC would undoubtedly have been energized by her campaign and better for the ideas she would have brought to it. But after a year in which the CLC's electoral renewal sat on the back burner and in which the priorities for many of us have shifted, Silas's decision was disappointing but not shocking.

The CLC convention in which the election was to take place had been scheduled for May 4-8, 2020. CLC President Hassan Yussuff planned to retire at that time, but has continued on in an interim capacity. The convention will now be held as a virtual event on June 16-18 this year. Needless to say, that significantly changes the dynamics of a campaign that would have been fought out on the convention floor.

Silas graduated in 1983 from the nursing program at the French-language Université de Moncton, working in critical care, emergency, and labour and delivery. Seven years later, she was elected leader of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, the youngest provincial nursing union president in Canada.

Her biography on the CFNU website describes her as "a five-foot feminist dynamo with a soft heart and strong stomach who is passionate about making a difference in people's lives."

Having worked with Silas over much of the past decade in my communications role with United Nurses of Alberta, I will admit to being very disappointed by this development.

As I wrote in 2020, Silas had the potential to get the CLC on the Canadian public's radar at a time when unions are both desperately needed and under heavy attack by right-wing politicians and their media auxiliaries.

Beatrice Bruske, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 in Manitoba, is still contesting the CLC presidency. Siobhan Vipond, who is secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour, is expected to run for CLC first vice-president in June.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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