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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Nurses hit the campaign trail

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

You'd expect to see nurses in hospitals, health institutions or community centres. Soon, however, we may see nurses in Parliament as well. That's because three Ontario nurses will be running for office in the next provincial elections.
"It's our job to serve the public interest ... and you couldn't get a better fit than [nurses]," says Monica Purdy, a nurse who was recently elected the Liberal candidate for the Beaches, East York region.

The candidates have received plenty of encouragement from the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO), which ran a training course for 17 nurses last September to teach them how to run a campaign for public office.

"Nurses have been active in political lobbying, but in April last year, we decided it was time to take that one step further and help ease them into political life," says Adeline Falk-Raphael, president of the RNAO.

Helping nurses into political careers is one of the many accomplishments being celebrating during Nursing Week, which runs from May 12 to 18. But if the nurse candidates are elected, this could be a development with far-reaching effects.

"Nurses are natural leaders," says Barb Wahl, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA).

"They're advocates for the public and for the community. And to be a politician in the purest sense is a natural extension of that."
RNAO president Adeline Falk-Rafael (left), president-elect Joan Lesmond (centre) and Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty (right) listen to the concerns of Monica Purdy, RNAO member at the association's 4th annual day at Queen's Park held Jan. 24, 2003.

All the candidates will put health-care issues high on their agenda due to their intimate knowledge of the challenges that the system faces. According to Wahl, dealing with the shortage of nursing staff should be a top priority.

"Since the government cutbacks of the 1990s, there has been a drastic shortage of nurses. We've really felt it in the last few weeks with SARS," she says. "Half of our membership is also eligible for retirement in a few years, so the problems will get worse."

Monica Purdy has worked as a nurse for 18 years and in March she was elected to be the Liberal Candidate for the Beaches, East York region. Her experience in the 1990s made her realize that nurses didn't have enough of a say in their own future.

"I realized that there was a broader political arena where people make decisions that affect you," Purdy says. "We were treated like widgets. It was a frustrating time for me, seeing nurses laid off and then going into work the next day to find we were short staffed."

But nurse-candidates say they will not be single-issue politicians. Ross Sutherland, who represents the NDP in Hasting, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, says being a nurse in emergency has made him aware of a wide range of social problems.
Nurses as Lobbyists
According to Adeline Falk-Raphael, president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO), one of the greatest accomplishments for nurses this year is the contribution they made to the Romanow Report. The RNAO submitted a written document and delivered a presentation to the Commission on the Future of Healthcare in Canada to highlight some of the health-care system's highest priority issues. Many of their suggestions were taken into account. Presented to the public on Nov. 28, 2002, the Romanow report recommended sweeping changes to ensure the long-term sustainability of Canada's health care system. Its recommendations include improvements in primary health-care, home care, pharmacare, funding remote and rural communities, reducing wait times for diagnostic services and resolving health human resources shortages.

"Emergency is an interesting microcosm because you meet people and hear their stories. It's often about health care, but it's also about their life and problems. Perhaps they can't afford to buy their medication. Or they need home-care and it's not available to them."

Being a health-care worker, however, doesn't necessarily mean you'll have all the tools you need to be a successful politician. The RNAO course for aspiring candidates taught people how to run a campaign, how to raise money and how to deal with the media.

Nursing Week is a time to look back on the achievements of the past, but it is also a time to look forward to the future. And the real test is how well nurse politicians will fare in the next elections. Monica Purdy is hopeful.

"There's the impression that politics is not the cleanest profession," she laughs. "But nurses can help improve that reputation because we are so trusted by the public. It's our job to serve the public interest... and you couldn't get a better fit than that."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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