Officials promise changes at 'toxic' Montreal hospital after ER nurse protest

MONTREAL — Quebec's health minister says he is bringing in an external manager to try and resolve a labour dispute that forced a major Montreal hospital to partially close its emergency room Monday night.

A nurse-led protest over working conditions led officials to warn residents to stay away from the ER between 11 p.m. Monday and 8 a.m. the next day. On Tuesday, Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters the situation at the ER was "untenable," adding, "many people have described the work environment as toxic."

The situation had been simmering for days: on Friday, more than 90 of 115 nurses at the hospital's ER signed a petition demanding the resignation of their unit chief, and many had reportedly threatened to resign en masse by the middle of this week. The nurses say they are exhausted by the amount of mandatory overtime they put in.

In response, Dubé said he and Jean-François Fortin-Verreault, head of the city's east-end health authority, agreed to "bring someone from outside the (hospital) to come and continue to try to find solutions."

Earlier in the day, Fortin-Verreault told reporters his goal was to keep the ER open and improve working conditions for nurses. He said ambulances would transfer fewer patients to the ER and redirect them to other hospitals. The unit chief has been reassigned, he added.

"The person in question is not responsible for the hospital being at overcapacity," Fortin-Verreault said about the unit chief who had become the target of the nurses' scorn. "It is obvious that the relationship with the staff is not there, so we are going to move the person, and they will have different functions."

He said that by reducing the number of ER patients, nurses would have a better work-life balance.

Denis Cloutier, president of the local chapter of a major nurses union — Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec — told reporters that Tuesday's night shift was missing about half the required nurses.

"Twelve nurses are absent from tonight's shift, so we are really worried," he said. "They love their job, but it's really difficult right now. There are way too many mandatory overtime hours."

Neither Dubé, Fortin-Verreault nor Cloutier were able to confirm Tuesday afternoon whether the ER would be able to function normally overnight or whether it would have to partially close again. By early evening, however, Carl Boisvert, a spokesperson for the local health authority, said, "at the moment there is no closure planned" for the overnight shift in the ER.

The forced overtime and ER overcrowding is not only a problem in Montreal's east end. Radio-Canada reported that at the Jonquière hospital in Quebec's Saguenay region, about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City, ER nurses staged a 30-minute sit-in Tuesday morning.

The nurses were protesting staffing shortages and overcrowding — the hospital's ER had an occupancy rate of 131 per cent by noon.

Quebec's official Opposition said the situation across the province's health network is a result of the "incompetence" of the government.

After five years of the Coalition Avenir Québec, "not only has the emergency situation not improved, but our health system is cracking everywhere," health critic André Fortin said in a statement Tuesday. "It is a dismal failure of the minister and a crisis of leadership, as he refuses to get directly involved when problems arise."

Québec solidaire health critic Vincent Marissal called the crisis at the ER an "active volcano," adding that "if Dubé didn't see the smoke signals before today, then we have a hell of a problem."

Marissal said Quebec has never had more nurses working in the health network. The problem, he said, is the distribution of labour — and the fact nurses don't want to work at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital because it is a "trap."

"They don't want to come to work here, because it's a trap: when you enter the hospital, both as a nurse and as a patient, you never know when you're going to come out," he said, referencing the mandatory overtime that keeps nurses working significantly longer than eight hours per shift.

Marissal said the hospital will be 70 years old next year. "It is inadequate, dangerous and unattractive to staff. It's the biggest (ER) in Quebec and we've been talking about renovations for years. It takes a real plan, a real schedule and a real budget."

The occupancy rate at Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital was 117 per cent Tuesday at noon, according to website indexsante.ca, which tracks the occupancy rates at the province's hospitals.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press