Friday, May 25, 2012

Some Musings on "Entitlement"

Over the age of 65 and born in Canada I have reaped many of the benefits that working people fought for over decades. These benefits included a more than decent public education system, a universally accessible publicly funded health care system, unemployment insurance and publicly funded childcare, a less that adequate but nevertheless existent Canada pension plan and Old Age Security.

I have had a unionized job as a Registered Nurse since I began working 40 years ago. None of the public services my generation enjoyed were as comprehensive say as those in Scandinavian and other wealthy European countries but nevertheless they were fought by trade unionists and won. They are ours and we won them – no one gave them to us – we forced them out of the hands of the ruling class. 

In 1965 when I entered nursing school choices for young women from working class families were limited when it came to post secondary school education.  If were able to complete Grade 12 or 13 some of us had the opportunity to become nurses and teachers. Very few of us had our sights on university education. Student loans were not available till a few years later and even then most of us did not even think about going to university.
My education was paid for by the government- like an apprenticeship. We spent approximately 1/3 of our time working on hospital units and the rest in the classroom. By the time I graduated the Canada Health Act was legislated and I began my career in a publicly funded, universally accessible, publicly administered health care system. This of course gave me a sense of entitlement in the best sense. It was the best of times to work as a nurse. We were educated and expected to practice our profession with the understanding that every patient, no matter their socio-economic status was entitled to the same high quality health care. To consider anything else was preposterous as we went about our work applying our skills to the poor and the better off in equal measure. It was expected that we would advocate for our clients to have the best quality care.

I remember when I was in my late twenties working on a medical unit in a Toronto hospital and an evening supervisor hinted that perhaps the wealthy patient down the hall could have his needs met and his call bell answered “in a more timely fashion” meaning of course we should offer him preferential treatment . I also remember in one voice 4 of us telling her that the “wealthy patient” down the hall was not “entitled “ to  preferential treatment – that he would receive the same care as the poor patient in the 4 bed room down the hall, according to his needs and the urgency of his situation. In most situations speaking to a nursing supervisor in that manner would be considered insubordinate at the worst and “cheeky” at the best. But in this case she had not a leg to stand on and she merely walked away. The system entitled us to advocate in this manner and practice this way-in fact it mandated it.

At that time of course there were many poor people in Toronto. Actual homelessness was rare but there were many pockets of run down boarding homes where unemployed and poor people lived. This was before the scourge of gentrification in Toronto. Working in a downtown city hospital meant of course that we received many very sick people that were very poor.

No matter how sick- no matter their “lifestyles” – tongue in cheek of course –as if they could actually choose their “lifestyles” they were entitled to and received the best quality care.

Specifically I remember a late middle aged man who was found unconscious in his room in a rundown boarding home down the street from our hospital. He came to the ER near death. He was a very sick man – an unemployed alcoholic living in dire poverty. In a heat wave he had been unconscious on the floor in his room for over 3 days. A neighbour noticed him missing and called an ambulance. In the ER it was discovered after removing his clothing that he had what looked like burns all over his lower body. As well these areas were covered with maggots. There was no evidence of fire on his clothing or in his room. The urine and perspiration had excoriated his skin and the flies laid eggs and lo and behold the maggots had kept his wounds clean. Otherwise he probably would have been dead.

To make a long story short this man was kept in hospital for over 2 months. It took that long to restore him to health. For a couple of weeks he was provided with 24 hrs constant nursing care at the cost of the state. He was an obstreperous curmudgeonly kind of fellow whose humour began to emerge as his physical condition improved. In the end he wooed us all. I was on duty the first day he was able to emerge from his room, taking wee steps up the hall with his walker. His attending physician was standing in the hall at the nursing station and began to clap his hands as our patient approached. Soon every nurse was clapping with him as our man began to smile at first cautiously and then with as smile as wide as can be. As this was happening I overheard someone say- “what a waste- he will just go out and start drinking again and be back in the same state. “ I saw his physician who had dark penetrating eyes and a large black beard whip his head around and tear a strip of the person who said that. In essence he stated that he as a physician was a public servant, that we were public servants and that our patient was entitled to the best quality care each and every time he appeared on our doorstep- no matter who he was or how he lived.
These two memories are etched in my brain along with many others. I will never forget the pride I felt, not because I was a nurse-but because I was a nurse working in a health care system that treated every Canadian equally and allowed us as workers to practice as competent and caring workers.

Now I/we  are “entitled “public sector workers bringing the economy to its knees. Our patients are told they are no longer “entitled” to an “unsustainable,“ universally accessible  ,publicly funded and administered health care system. Just as the federal government tells us we are no longer entitled to the unemployment benefits we pay for as they drive workers and poor people into precarious and low paid jobs. Poor people are no longer entitled to pay their rent and eat as welfare is gutted and families are no longer entitled to affordable subsidized child care.
In Quebec university and college students have been on the streets for well over 100 days fighting against rising tuition costs , subjected to extreme police brutality as laws are passed to prevent further protest and organizing. These students are in the forefront right now of struggle and protest and it is a shame that the trade unions while offering “resources” are not bring working people out onto the streets to join them and strengthen their ranks and their and their power beat back the attacks on working people and our families.

Daily the bourgeois media attacks them for being “entitled” youth and yet daily they push forward with a correct sense of entitlement. Yes they are entitled. We are all entitled to the fruits of our labour and public services that belong to us because we work for them and after all without our work there is nothing – absolutely nothing.
Few are screaming and railing about the “entitlement” of the global rich and their institutions. As workers, youth and poor people we are insulted, denounced and attacked. We are told it is time we let go of our sense of “entitlement.” Our jobs, wages , pensions, benefits , homes and our  hard won public services are stolen from us . Our public services are being gutted and sold off to the rich. It is time to get really angry and force their language of entitlement down their throats, steal their evil discourse from them and claim our genuine “entitlement.” As the determined students in Quebec are doing it is time to “get it “, time to force our thinking to change and loudly proclaim that Yes We not Them, are entitled and we are prepared to organize and march and protest and defy the police as they try to beat our young people into submission, to accept the crumbs cast off by the rich. We must organize and “misbehave.” We must withhold our labour and do what it takes to take back what we produce .We need to organize and march and fight with all our strength and all power to push back and defeat the exploiters and the genuine scammers at the top of this disgusting system.

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