Photo of a street protest scene in daytime. A sign prominently reads
Health care workers have been showing up for Palestine, including pictured here at International Working Women's Day on Mar. 8 in San Francisco. Photo: Peg Hunter (Flickr).

Opinion: Ontario Nurses’ Association Must Speak Out Against Gaza Atrocities

As rank and file nurses, we are disgraced by the ongoing complicity of our health care leaders and institutions seven months into Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza. We must take matters into our own hands in the pursuit of justice. As one of the slogans of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) goes, “The nurses are coming. Injustice makes us angry. Anger makes us act.”

We demand the Ontario Nurses’ Association support the campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel until the latter abides by international law. Afterall, Canadian labour and civil society organizations have been supporting BDS for years. To start, the ONA should sign onto the statement initiated by Labour for Palestine, World Beyond War and Labour Against the Arms Trade which demands the federal government impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel. 

While ONA’s most recent statement on Apr. 12 urges the Canadian government “to do everything in its power to achieve a ceasefire and restore access to humanitarian aid and health care,” and also “uphold international law,” it steers clear of mentioning an arms embargo, which is a concrete and necessary precondition to all of the above. It is also worth noting that the statement was not published as a media release nor on ONA’s social media accounts, so it is unclear how it is intended to put any political pressure on the Canadian government, or even empower rank and file nurses to do so.

Of course, ONA cannot and will not propose such a solution until it names the problem for what it is, which is that Israel is plausibly committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza, including by way of systematic attacks on the health care system. Indeed, it has been argued that the attack on health care in Gaza is part of Israel’s strategy to create a major health crisis that kills thousands of Palestinians in the short-term and makes it impossible to heal, rebuild, and thrive on their land in the long-term. 

As of April 29, day 206 of the assault, 491 health workers have been killed, 155 health facilities and 126 ambulances have been damaged, 25 hospitals are out of service, and 11 hospitals are partially functioning. 

The complete destruction of Al-Shifa Hospital is now regarded as one of the largest massacres in Palestinian history, which is particularly alarming given the numerous massacres Palestinians have endured since the 1948 Nakba when they were forcibly expelled from their homes and ethnically cleansed from their land. More recently, more than 400 bodies were recovered from four mass graves discovered at Nasser Hospital, which was besieged and attacked by the Israeli military in February. Many of the bodies were dismembered and decomposing, as well as showing signs of torture and extrajudicial execution.

Israel has repeatedly attempted to excuse these types of casualties as collateral damage or unfortunate mistakes, but all the evidence in front of us tells us this is not the case. Christopher Lockyear, Secretary General of MSF (Doctors Without Borders) International, whose organization has seen five of its staff killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, explained, “We don’t accept the narrative of ‘regrettable incidents.’ We do not accept it, because what has happened to World Central Kitchen, and MSF’s convoys and shelters, is part of the same pattern of deliberate attacks on humanitarians, health workers, journalists, UN personnel, schools, and homes. … That these attacks on humanitarian workers are allowed to happen is a political choice.” Lockyear warned that “all states who are supporting Israel in these circumstances are morally and politically complicit.” 

Beyond state responsibility in this matter, we as rank and file nurses have our own professional, moral and political responsibility to act. ONA certainly took this perspective on the matter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a media release from Mar. 2022, ONA announced its decision to liquidate all Russian holdings in its global equity fund, citing ethical concerns and a commitment to its broader values. This decisive move was a clear demonstration of ONA’s solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its condemnation of Russia’s actions. 

The glaring absence of a similar stance on the atrocities unfolding in Gaza raises serious questions about ONA’s consistency and integrity in addressing global issues which undeniably impact the structural and social determinants of health.

Locally, ONA has a responsibility to support us in the face of grave moral distress and from the threat of harassment and reprisal in our workplaces related to our solidarity with Palestine. It also has a responsibility to explicitly address and combat anti-Palestinian racism. To date, ONA’s tepid statements have been hard to distinguish from that of our hospital CEOs. Those of us who are Palestinian-Canadian feel particularly betrayed, as we continue to show up to work and care for our patients while experiencing repression here and the heartache of losing loved ones in Palestine. As our union, we demand more of you. 

This May Day and Nursing Week, we are looking for actions that go beyond celebratory remarks and superficial gestures to those that reflect our collective pursuit of justice. From our experience with Bill 124 and other attacks on health care and healthcare workers over the years, we know that ONA is capable of mobilizing and fighting to win. 

May the fight not just be limited to our own self-interest, but extend to the breadth and depth of international solidarity. Listen to the demands of Palestinians, including that of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and Palestinian health sector unions. Call for an immediate two-way arms embargo on Israel. Then, as you did with Russia, disclose and divest from any and all holdings that are implicated in Israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide of the Palestinian people. The work continues until Palestine is free.

We as Ontario rank and file nurses are organizing through a grassroots caucus as part of the pan-Canadian network Labour4Palestine. You can join us and follow us on Instagram to learn about upcoming events and actions. 

This letter was written by a group of nurses across Ontario who are remaining anonymous for fear of professional backlash.