NDP calls for Manitoba health minister to resign after more nurses quit program for sex assault victims

Two more casual nurses who helped examine sexual assault victims in Manitoba have resigned a day after nearly a third of the program’s casual nurses stepped down, leaving one community health centre concerned about access to care.

Shared Health, the provincial agency that delivers health care in the province, said Wednesday that the two nurses, who work on a casual basis, had resigned from the sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, program at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

On Tuesday, four of the program’s 13 casual nurses quit.

“These departures have resulted in a gap in service coverage over the past day and we are working to minimize future gaps,” a Shared Health spokesman said in a statement.

“The vulnerability of this staffing emphasizes the importance of [setting] up a provincial service that is staffed with dedicated nurses who are scheduled to work regular shifts rather than selecting to pick up.”

The program had no coverage for a 16-hour stretch on Tuesday night, said the Manitoba Nurses Union.

The union has been sounding the alarm for several months over the program’s staffing.

It said earlier this year that some sexual assault victims were being told to not shower and to come back later, because no one was available to examine them. Nurses have been overwhelmed and stretched thin, the union added.

Ayn Wilcox, executive director of Klinic Community Health, called the staffing concerns “deeply troubling” for survivors who are trying to access necessary support.

Klinic has worked in partnership with the program’s nurses and provides third-party reporting services for victims who don’t want to go directly to police.

“The need for safe, accessible, trauma-informed care for survivors of a sexual assault cannot be overstated,” Wilcox said in a statement.

Nurses ‘absolutely devastated’: NDP

This week’s resignations are the latest blows to the program, which has failed at times to live up to its plan to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Casual nurses, who work full-time in other areas, pick up shifts in the program. They collect evidence of sex assaults and support victims.

The Manitoba government announced funding last year to convert the casual positions to permanent, full-time ones.

The expanded program was supposed to be up and running by early this year but has faced challenges with hiring and training nurses.

Shared Health hired six nurses earlier this year for permanent positions and they are expected to complete their training this summer.

“We are continuing down this path to create a more reliable, consistent and accessible service so that we are never in a situation like this again,” the spokesman said. 

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, told CBC on Tuesday night she wasn’t surprised by the resignations, adding the nurses who quit are disappointed and disillusioned with how the program has been managed.

One of the main issues for the four casual nurses who left Tuesday was not being hired for the new permanent positions, Jackson said, adding they were “disappointed they were not given the opportunity to work alongside these survivors.”

Shared Health’s Wednesday statement said “while seniority is a factor in the hiring practices for our unionized workforce … permanent positions were offered to qualified nurses who worked in the casual pool.”

Meanwhile, Manitoba’s Opposition NDP has called for Health Minister Audrey Gordon to resign.

NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara sits in front of a backdrop banner with the NDP logo on it.
Manitoba NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara says conversations with some of the nurses who resigned indicate frustration with the Progressive Conservative government. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Shared Health would not provide information on what led to the resignations, but NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said conversations with some of the nurses indicate frustration with the Progressive Conservative government.

“They’re absolutely devastated. These nurses love the work that they do. These are compassionate people who put the needs of their patients and their families first,” said Asagwara.

“It is a heartbreaking decision for them to make to resign, but they have made it clear it is the result of their voices going unheard, the mental and emotional toll of not being able to provide survivors the care that they need and deserve, and feeling completely unsupported by this PC government.”

Gordon said the government takes sexual assaults seriously and understands the trauma that comes with them.

She said the program will need to rely on casual staff as permanent staff receive their training.

“Once all those individuals are fully trained and all seven are hired and trained, it will be a fully functioning program. I’m confident of that.”

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