McGill Nursing students lead province-wide effort to take the lessons of advocacy beyond the classroom.
When Ingram School of Nursing (ISoN) Master’s student Samantha Weisenfeld was hired at a Montreal hospital, she was shocked to discover that her starting salary would not be at echelon 7, as had been the practice for decades, but at echelon 1, representing a 20% decrease in pay. Upon further investigation, she discovered that the Ministry of Health and Social Services had negotiated that regardless of education level, all newly hired nurses who received their licenses after December 12, 2022 would start at the lowest echelon on a pay scale that was already the lowest in Canada. Samantha spoke to her friend and fellow master’s student, Sydney Wasserman, President of the Nursing Graduate Students’ Association, and the two of them reached out to Enora Ledieu, BScN student and President of the Nursing Undergraduate Society.
Recognizing that this new measure could have negative repercussions not just on the career aspirations of nursing graduates but also on the healthcare system as a whole, they took action. With the support of the student body and a few of their professors, they wrote an opinion piece published simultaneously in the Montreal Gazette and La Presse, were interviewed on radio and television, and started a petition that now has close to 18,000 signatures.
What motivated you to take action at this particular time?
Samantha: Whenever I’m in a difficult situation I ask my friends for advice. When I found out about the pay decrease, I reached out to Sydney and she immediately said, “This isn’t fair.”
Sydney: As nurses, we always advocate for our patients but it’s difficult to advocate for ourselves. There was a consensus that this issue was bigger than ourselves and that we had to take action.
Enora: Throughout the pandemic, we worked hard in our studies while continuing to provide care in hospitals and to do our part to hold up the healthcare system. We saw firsthand how the nursing shortage poses a direct risk to patient care, and believe that this measure will worsen the nursing shortage.
What did you learn about the difference between nursing advocacy in theory and in practice?
Sydney: The theory our professors taught us was useful because it provided a steppingstone to advocacy. In reality, though, advocacy is a long trajectory that takes a lot of dedication.
Enora: Theory is surface level. In practice, each case is different so you have to get into the nitty gritty of your particular situation.
Samantha: Everything sounds much easier in theory. In the classroom, it seems like anything is possible. In practice, advocacy involves continuous coordination, many steps, meetings, email chains and Zoom calls.
Were you surprised by the level of support from some of your professors?
Enora: Not at all. ISoN professors have a passion and love for nursing. They were as upset as we were about the new measure.
Samantha: Our professors encourage us to continue our education because society needs educated nurses and because on a personal level, we can go further in our careers with a master’s degree. It makes you feel very small when the workforce doesn’t compensate you fairly for your advanced knowledge and skills.
Sydney: When I told my friends in other programs how supportive our faculty has been, they were very surprised. We had four professors on our email chain – that’s unusual.
What are you most proud of and what lessons will you take from this experience?
Samantha: Having a platform to speak up, having our voices heard, starting a conversation that needed to happen. I had assumed everyone understood the emotional exhaustion nurses have been going through, but for many people, our opinion piece was a window on our reality. We received a lot of congratulatory messages, including one from a McGill dean who shared a personal story of how nurses positively impacted his life.
Sydney: Getting support from other healthcare professionals was very rewarding. So was meeting with the leaders of student nursing groups across Quebec who shared our petition. Our initial goal was to collect 10,000 signatures; we now have almost 18,000. It’s empowering to see how much we accomplished together. We showed students in nursing and other fields that if you can articulate your ideas well, you can advocate for yourselves. At the same time, while it’s important to surround yourselves with people who support you and share your perspective, to advocate effectively, you need to be open to different perspectives.
Enora: I’m proud of how far we were able to go. We sent an email to the Minister of Health and Social Services, attaching the petition, our op-ed, and another op-ed written by the presidents of the Association étudiante en sciences infirmières au Québec and the Association étudiante des cycles supérieurs de la Faculté des sciences infirmières de l’Université de Montréal. I would tell students that if you’re passionate about an issue, you should go for it. The steps you take may be different depending on the situation, but it’s important to be able to say “I’ve done what I can.”