Canadian paramedic shortage could put hitch in N.W.T. recruitment plan

Paramedics deliver a patient to an emergency room. The N.W.T. government announced last week it would recruit paramedics to help backstop vacant nursing positions, but paramedics are in short supply across the country. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

By Celeste Decaire · CBC News

Provinces across the country struggling to keep paramedics on board

The N.W.T. government is looking to recruit paramedics to help out at its health centres, and in remote communities — but the national pot of frontline workers they hope to dip into is running low.

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, says the healthcare workforce as a whole is “living in crisis.”

While the N.W.T. government’s plan is to contract paramedics to address staffing shortages — mainly of nurses — it’s not clear where they’ll find those paramedics.

The strategy of using paramedics alongside nurses, specifically in emergency departments, isn’t new. It’s been tried and tested in provinces like Ontario, Nova Scotia, and recently given a trial run in Fort Providence, N.W.T.

“We’re seeing different governments try different things. The only thing you can say is that when you’re in a crisis, you have to try everything,” Silas said.

The issue, she adds, is that it’s a short-term, Band-Aid solution.

Paramedics can’t replace role of nurses 

“There’s not one paramedic or other health care professional that’s going to replace a nurse. Just like nurses wouldn’t be replacing others,” Silas said.

Another issue is that paramedics across Canada are facing a staffing shortage as well.

Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association, says paramedics are experiencing the same problems that many nurses are: pandemic burnout.

“We’ve had a certain percentage of our population, of our demographic, just tapped out,” he said. “They’ve left.”

We’ve had a certain percentage of our population, of our demographic, just tapped out. They’ve left.– Darryl Wilton, pres. of Ontario Paramedic Association

Wilton says the N.W.T.’s plan to recruit paramedics is a new idea for the territory to try, but it may not work for very long.

“They’re going to be competing fiercely with every other province and territory in Canada.”

Kevin MacMullin is the business manager for IUOE Local 727, which represents paramedics and frontline workers in Nova Scotia. He says in the last seven months, they’ve lost over 70 of their paramedics due to burnout, retirement, and higher paying agencies.

It’s a loss they can’t afford.

“Those [paramedics] have an average of 10 years of experience. So that’s a lot to lose. It’s a major investment that we don’t want to see go away.”

The N.W.T. government is offering a number of financial incentives with its latest recruitment plan, which MacMullin says could be a major draw for paramedics from Nova Scotia and elsewhere to relocate.

“Our pay scale is low compared to other areas where they can make much more money, like in the Northwest Territories,” MacMullin said. “It’s hard to compete with that.”

Money isn’t a permanent fix

Peter Dundas, paramedic chief of Peel Region in Ontario, says money is a bit of a solution but it’s not the answer.

“We’ve tried monetary [incentives] in healthcare in Ontario where they’re paying nurses double time, triple time, covering their travel allowance,” Dundas said. “It works for a few weeks, but then they go.”

He says while increasing staffing is of course part of the solution, the healthcare system is “years out” from getting those numbers to where they need to be.

“We have to remember that in Ontario, paramedics gotta go through two years of college. To hire more nurses, they have to have a degree. That’s a four year program.”

Dundas says that on top of schooling, it takes years of experience to be considered highly skilled in either of those fields. There needs to be more immediate solutions to address this issue.

Concerns moving forward 

The worst case scenario, he says, is already unfolding.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Union says over 200 emergency departments and intensive care units across the country have been closed on and off all summer.

In the N.W.T. alone, 15 health centres are operating on reduced or emergency services.

“There is no real calm right now in the system,” Dundas said.

CBC News has reached out to the territorial government for comment.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Paramedics arrive in Nunavik to help with regional health worker shortage, CBC News

Greenland: Greenland to reduce services amidst staffing shortages in health care system, Eye on the Arctic


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