Practicing Social Activism


Activism for nursing

Following her transformation at labour school, Madeleine made a commitment to assume responsibility for within her profession—"to become more involved and not just wonder what everybody else was doing to help us out". She successfully ran for Secretary-Treasurer of the New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU), a position she held from 1980 to 1982; and was then elected provincial president in 1982, a role she occupied part-time until 1987 and after that on an ad hoc basis until 1990. Then she won a position to manage labour relations at the NBNU, where she stayed until her formal retirement in 2002. In the space of just 20 years, Madeleine had changed from being a masked operating room nurse to being "unmasked" as a union president who spoke publicly for six- to seven-thousand nurses; and conducting research and advocacy province-wide for 12 years to gain better working conditions and standards for nurses.

Despite her increasing public relations skills, Madeleine always felt challenged by the media, especially when pressed for sensational news, for example, when nurses might go on strike during confidential salary negotiations: "I never felt comfortable, but that's good, if you get too comfortable you'll get caught in one of their traps". She learned to stick with a discussion of the facts, refusing to be drawn into speculation or discussion revolving around accusations or allegations. Having the support and example of more experienced colleagues and media advisers helped her to develop as a savvy public spokeswoman for the union, and later for other organizations.

Being president of NBNU enabled Madeleine to attend meetings of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, where she learned the issues in other jurisdictions. Additionally, sitting on the executive and board of the Canadian Nurses' Association provided her with an active part in a well-respected national organization.

In her role as NBNU Labour Relations Officer, Madeleine sat on the negotiations committee where she absorbed the complexities of many issues in relation to pensions, health and safety, and long-term disability. She wanted to learn more about how to handle case overload, workplace injuries, and forced overtime work. To friends who asked if she missed nursing, Madeleine replied, that she was still doing it, "only my patients are nurses—they need somebody looking after them". A self-confessed workaholic with a desire to learn new things, she served on the executive and board of the Canadian Nurses' Association for two terms in a position that addressed work-life issues of the nurse at a national level.

During her work with the NBNU, Madeleine educated nurses on the hospital floor about their place in their own unions, urging them not to abandon a union that was fighting for them. She spent considerable energy to relay the message:

The union is you. They wouldn't have that office in Fredericton if it wasn't for you—and the same with the Nurses' Association of New Brunswick. So if you want change, you've got to be in there and be heard. The union is all of us together, a single voice.

Madeleine was determined to speak publicly at every opportunity about what nurses had to contend with in their workplace and why they deserved greater public respect. At the time when the NBNU was running a campaign aimed at increasing public recognition for nurses, Madeleine was invited to speak at a Conference Board of Canada high-level meeting on social issues to leaders in business, community, and universities.

I said to this audience, "I want you to get a picture of what it is like for nurses and I've been to enough meetings in other provinces that I can tell you we're pretty much saying the same thing". So the message was respect and recognition, and I finished my seven minutes and there was dead silence. I thought, "Oh God!" and all of a sudden a fist hit the table: "She is goddamn right," a man said, "I've got a daughter with a Master's degree in nursing, and she's on the picket line in Quebec trying to get the message across that this woman just told us". As I always said, almost everybody in the room is related to a nurse.

One particular challenge was the proposed change from nursing diploma schools to university-based education for nurses. The union was concerned with this move because they could see an increase in the shortage of nurses across the province, higher costs, an uncertain future for the instructors in the current nursing schools, and promotional issues for diploma-school graduates.

The highlights for Madeleine in all her work in the NBNU were overall improved pension plans and the establishment of part-time nurses' positions. Casual work nurses were reclassified to part-time nurses, thereby gaining such benefits as pension, long-term disability, and group insurance.

The Women's Movement

You couldn't ignore it in this religious- and military-rooted profession of nursing: there were so many issues that were prime for the Women's Movement.

Serving as the New Brunswick Nurses Union president, and later as their Labour Relations Officer resulted in Madeleine being recommended for a seat on the Board of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and its committee for women's issues in education. In her role of speaking out for nurses, it was inevitable that Madeleine would intersect with issues raised by the women's movement between the late 1960s and the early 1980s—the so-called second wave of feminism. In this context, for instance, nurses who became pregnant were expected to resign their jobs; and there was a stereotypic belief about the "appliance nurse" who worked at night after her children were in bed in order to finance a new appliance, since she wouldn't need her workplace pension with a provider husband on hand.

Madeleine used inarguable statistics to help change the conservative public attitudes about women and financial dependency, realizing the need to educate nurses in her own union as well as opponents at the bargaining table on the need to prepare women to live as more economically independent adults:

I looked around the room and thought, "Fifty percent of these married nurses aren't going to be married in five to ten years; they will be on their own looking after themselves".

In the mid-1990s when Madeleine was on the Board of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research and then acted in the role of Chair, her exposure to this research increased her knowledge of women's issues, at times "overwhelmingly".

The New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women (NBACSW)

Madeleine accepted the invitation in 1988 to sit on the NBACSW Board, aware that interrelated issues affecting women, such as pay equity, women's participation in male-dominated professions, violence against women, and scrutiny of government, would have an impact on members of her own union.

One highlight for Madeleine was the inception of the NBACSW's Report Card rating the progress of government in dealing with issues related to women.

Another issue looming on her horizon was the poverty faced by older women in New Brunswick. One challenge faced by members of the NBACSW Board was the division of public opinion on their public messages regarding women's issues.

You'll never make everybody happy; you go with what you believe in and you go with the majority. Sure, not every woman lives in poverty or faces violence, but if we've got strong voices, we should be heard. We should speak for them and with them, rather than being critical amongst ourselves.

A similar volley of criticism was aimed at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation in terms of the relationship between research and positive changes for women affected by violence. Madeleine conceded the policy gap when it comes to using the insights into violence against women in every setting from home to work to military:

The decision-makers in government are mostly men and these issues are not their priorities. They come from corporations, they come from the law societies, the medical profession, and these are not their prime issues, so they drag [their heels] or we get little bits and pieces thrown here and there.

Madeleine experienced sitting at the NBACSW table a privilege because of what she could take back to her NBNU work, and the inspiration from peers whose knowledge, drive, and determination were tireless. She also learned to recognize their achievements in terms of every gain, no matter how small, and though she wishes remedial action were swifter, "it doesn't happen anywhere—you just keep working at it, you try not to get discouraged".

In addition to her long-term commitments to the nursing profession and to women's issues in general, Madeleine has considerable experience as a volunteer for Grace House Emergency Shelter for Women, bemoaning the need to "go begging and borrowing to get money every year"; and the Community Health Clinic, where she volunteered when they offered the Methadone program.

Greeting those individuals with respect when they came in, getting to know them by name, they getting to know me by name…. I had a flat tire there one day and three of the clients wouldn't let me call the garage, they were out fixing it—that kind of thing.

Stepping Stone Senior Centre (SSSC)

After her retirement from nursing activism, Madeleine became a member of the Stepping Stone Senior Centre in Fredericton in 2002 and served as president for two terms. The Centre has increased its membership, sorted out administrative procedures, and established an ongoing relationship with the City of Fredericton, and today it flourishes with over 500 regular members taking part in a wide range of activities.

If I'm going to be spokesperson for the Stepping Stone Senior Centre, then I have to know its policies, constitution, and bylaws so I'm not overstepping or even under-stepping what it is I'm supposed to do. Before I took on the role of president of the SSSC, I read all the past recorded minutes from the very first Task Force to know how it came about.

Taking a critical view of the dominant thinking on medical and social services for older citizens, Madeleine regards the programs for healthy minds and bodies offered at the SSSC as "a true description of a health centre… but the health centres as we know them are still sickness-oriented". She has talked with renowned Canadian health policy analyst Dr. Michael Rachlis about how a community like Fredericton could offer innovative services and facilities for seniors.

It's those opportunities that fuel me, that get me going again. It's like when I had the opportunity to sit with Liz Burge and Jo Lynam and others to talk about affordable housing issues [for seniors]. There are many members of the Centre who are probably struggling to pay high rents and every year they are getting increases in rents—there are no controls.

One of the main issues for her is to keep seniors in their homes as long as possible, a policy the government promotes without providing adequate supports. Indeed, the government approach to social problems is problematic for Madeleine, who takes issue with the silo method that keeps departments from interacting effectively with each other. Recognizing that there is no single perspective that can encompass the needs of all citizens over the age of 65, she would nonetheless like to see much more integration of services from the perspective of seniors themselves.

Hopes for the future

Priority issues for Madeleine are pay equity for women; an increase in their participation in federal, provincial, and municipal politics; and adequate pensions for women who choose to stay home and carry out the unpaid and undervalued work of raising children and managing a household.

I don't know if I'll see in my lifetime the goal of not having to worry about pay equity any more. It's sad because it's continuing to devalue the role of women. I'm really pleased with the strides that have been made with pensions, but we still have to look at the issue now for the women who want to stay home, who are not gaining anything under the Canada Pension Plan.
Committed, persistent, relentless: I was speaking out as clearly as I could, always trying to give the image of the nurse today. I want to be part of collective change, I never wanted to run the show. Once the collective decision is made, I'm comfortable being the voice.