Nova Scotia Health Minister Leo Glavine says the legislature will begin a new sitting at midnight in order to pass essential services legislation before nurses’ shifts begin tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.

The essential services bill would immediately end a strike by nurses that began this morning in the Halifax region. 

Glavine says the legislature will immediately commence debate on the bill's third reading.

Registered nurses with Nova Scotia's largest health authority began a 30-hour walkout after getting into a legal strike position just after midnight Thursday, two days after they were forced to end an illegal walkout.

As a result, Capital Health says it postponed 91 surgeries Thursday and has delayed 234 since labour action began earlier this week.

Nearly one-third of beds in Capital Health facilities were expected to be closed by the end of Thursday, and hundreds of outpatient appointments postponed.

Patients whose surgeries have been postponed will be rescheduled as early as possible, officials said. They warned that others with imminent appointments could be bumped to later dates to make room. 

"The inconvenience to us as a system is nothing compared to what it is to our patients," said Chris Power, chief executive of the Capital District Health Authority.

'Will never be defeated'

"For people who have waited months and months for surgery and procedures only to have it cancelled and now have to get in the queue again … the disruption to families, the emotional stress that people are undergoing is tremendous."

Capital Health nurses are picketing outside the Halifax Infirmary and the Victoria General. Many have also marched to the provincial legislature, chanting: "The nurses united will never be defeated." 

Negotiations for a new collective agreement with the Capital District Health Authority have reached an impasse, and nurses say they are worried about staffing levels and patient care.

"There’s not enough nurses to take care of the patients that we have and the acuity of the patients that we have," said Heather Phillips, a cardiac surgery nurse at the Halifax Infirmary.

'We tried everything'

The legal strike began at 7 a.m. local time.

"We tried everything, up to and including what we’re doing today, to try to achieve a collective agreement that addresses patient safety, and neither the employer nor the government is willing to discuss that," said Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), which represents 2,400 nurses.

On Tuesday, the Nova Scotia Labour Board issued a cease and desist order after dozens of nurses didn't report for their shifts, forcing the cancellation of dozens of surgeries.

During the legal strike, nurses will continue to fully staff certain units, such as emergency and intensive care, the union says. The union says about 60 per cent of nurses scheduled to work remain on the job.

It has said there is an agreement with Capital Health on emergency service levels, but the health authority has disputed this and says the union isn't offering enough staff during the strike.

Essential services

The union and Capital Health have been at a stalemate in contract talks. The main sticking point is the union's demand for lower nurse-to-patient ratios, something opposed by the health district.

Earlier this week, the government of Premier Stephen McNeil introduced essential services legislation for health-care workers, which would force a union to negotiate with an employer what services remain in place before employees go out on strike.

The Essential Health and Community Services Act is expected to pass Friday and will put an end to the walkout. McNeil is defending the legislation and says similar laws are in place across the country.

He said by Wednesday there was still no agreement between Capital Health and the union on what services should remain in place during the strike.

"What we’re saying is if you want to protect the right to strike, which you believe health-care workers should have, you need to be very clear to Nova Scotians on what it is you deem to be an essential service," McNeil told CBC's Information Morning.

McNeil said his government has been hearing concerns about nurse staffing, but he argued that embedding nurse-to-patient ratios into a collective agreement has not been done anywhere else in the country.

Members of other unions are set to join Nova Scotia nurses outside the provincial legislature Thursday to rally against the essential services law, which is expected to pass Friday.