A photo of someone with blue medical gloves.
Nurses are leaving the sector because of burnout - but also because they’ve been insulted and humiliated by their employer. Credit: Clay Banks / Unsplash Credit: Clay Banks / Unsplash

Let me begin this seminar on the state of health care in Ontario with a word about language.

I mean, can you really talk about emergency departments when they close and open suddenly and often? Like at Clinton Public Hospital, closed on a Thursday and back to “reduced” hours Friday. Or one in Durham, closed on Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s like you have to schedule your emergencies. Are they even emergencies in that case? Are ERs now simply “rooms”?

Everyone agrees the main problem is nurses. They’re leaving due to burnout. But nurses have always faced burnout — they hung in because they were committed; their work had a certain gritty, cantankerous flare. They’re leaving now because they’ve been insulted and humiliated by their employer, the government, which capped their raises at one per cent while inflation is 10 times that, and won’t allow them to bargain like grown-ups for their wages.

As is the case with most normal heroes, they only get noticed when they’re not there. There are countless TV series on doctors, but few on nurses. You get paramedics and, occasionally, administrators like Dr. Cuddy on “House.” But not nurses. (The second-biggest problem is family doctors, who once had shows like “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” though no more.)

But surely more principled issues lurk here too, like priorities. Does the economy exist for the people, or do people exist for the economy? The Ford government gave a glimpse into their principles when they scheduled a speech from the throne and a budget on the same day this week.

The throne speech said Ontario will “not be limited by conventional thinking that stifles innovation and preserves a status quo that struggles to respond to growing challenges.” Verbal sludge, yes; but also: be very scared. Ontario will “take bold action.” What else could this mean but the right-wing dream that never dies: privatizing public health care, on the model of highly profitable long-term-care homes — frequently chaired or owned by previous Ontario Tory mainstays — that led the way in unnecessary deaths during early COVID.

Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones confirmed this when asked if further privatization was coming. “All options are on the table,” she purred. Then, Thursday, she piped up with more ambiguity but a clear mandate from the boss to push privatization without actually speaking the word. She did an unsubtle job of it.

Does this mean it’s time for an ideological reckoning? Should we ditch the verbal subterfuge and have a loud, honest debate on “Socialism or Capitalism?”

I’d love it, but honestly — probably not. The first public health-care system was created in Germany in 1883 by the reactionary “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, scourge of socialist revolutions in Europe for half a century. Most of Europe followed his welfare state model, as did America’s New Deal.

Ontario got public health care under Conservative governments, along with expanded, virtually free university. The current ugly rise in tuition and student loans came as much from quasi-leftist regimes like the NDP and Liberals. How do such incongruities occur? Because, I’d say, there’s such a thing as the zeitgeist, which enfolds left, right and whole generations when it asserts itself.

You can sense a new zeitgeist today in the rejection of neo-liberal globalization by the same parties in the U.S., U.K. and Canada that ushered it in. And in an openness to larger public activity on COVID and climate change.

I thought I even heard a whisper of it when Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy (re-)presented his budget. “Can we always do more? Absolutely. That’s what we’re here in government to do.” The hint I thought I heard was in his activist lingo: “Do more.” Even true Tories like him sound a bit baffled.

So this battle is on. But throughout public health-care’s history here, almost nobody has been truly for it except the public. It won’t hurt to have history somewhat on their side, for the current round.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.