Nurses in the Halifax area were ordered to return to work after some of them participated in an illegal strike on Tuesday to protest proposed legislation that they say takes away their right to strike.

The Nova Scotia Labour Board issued a cease and desist order after dozens of nurses in the Capital District Health Authority — the province's largest health district — did not report for their shifts.

That forced the cancellation of dozens of surgeries and inflamed tensions between the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents 2,400 nurses, and the provincial government.

"The union is asking all registered nurses to comply with the labour board order and report to their next scheduled shift," union officials said in a Facebook message on Tuesday afternoon.

"This does not mean our fight is over."

The union said its members are still preparing to hit the picket lines when they reach their legal strike position as of 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.

Labour Minister Kelly Regan said any union members who defy the labour board's order would face fines. Under the Trade Union Act, individual members would face fines of $300 a day.

In total, 140 registered nurses with the Capital District Health Authority failed to show for scheduled shifts on Tuesday, according to a spokesperson with the health authority. Seventy-seven of those nurses work in acute care and the remaining 63 in other areas of the hospital system.

At least 89 surgical procedures were cancelled, along with many other procedures, representing about half of the scheduled surgeries.

'We will have to cope'

"There's just been a general disruption in our ability to deliver care in a number of areas, such as the emergency department," said Dr. David Anderson, chief of medicine at the Capital District Health Authority.

Scheduled surgeries went ahead on a priority basis, with non-emergency cases postponed.

Chris Power, the president and CEO of the Capital District Health Authority, said patients were transferred to other health districts and a unit for patients in its addictions recovery program had to be closed because there weren't enough nurses to staff it.

"We are extremely grateful to those members of Local 97 who have decided to respect the law and their patients by remaining on the job today and we urge others to return to their roles immediately," she told a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

"We will have to cope with whatever comes our way because we have people who are dependent on our care. It will become increasingly problematic and more and more patients will be at risk the longer this goes on."

Nurse strike Robert Chisholm

Robert Chisholm, who has been a nurse for 22 years, spoke at Province House on Tuesday in an attempt to delay the passage of the essential services legislation. (CBC)

The unionized nurses began the illegal strike at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and spoke out against a proposed essential services law at the Nova Scotia legislature.

When the law is passed, nurses and other health workers will first have to agree with management which positions are essential services and staff those positions before starting any strike action.

Dozens of nurses spoke out at the Nova Scotia legislature on Tuesday in an attempt to delay the passage of the bill.

"If you're going to introduce Bill 37 and take away the voices of nurses who are true advocates — true advocates for patients and families in health-care organizations — you're going to have even a higher mortality rate at CDHA," said Robert Chisholm, who has been a nurse for 22 years.

"Guaranteed. No question."

Legal strike position Thursday

Nurses at the Capital District Health Authority, which includes the hospitals in the Halifax area, have been embroiled in a contract dispute with their employers about several issues, including nurse-to-patient ratios.

Halifax area nurses protest at legislature

Hundreds of nurses with the Capital District Health Authority walked off the job on Tuesday and marched to Province House in Halifax. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said there will be emergency services in place during the job action.

"There definitely, absolutely, will be an impact to patient care. But there's been an impact to patient care now for years," she said. "That's what the nurses have been talking about, and nobody was listening."

More than 2,400 registered nurses will be in a legal strike position on Thursday. It applies only to nurses represented by the NSGEU. That includes nurses at:

  • The Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre.
  • The Nova Scotia Hospital.
  • The East Coast Forensic Hospital.
  • Public Health Services.

Nurses at the IWK Health Centre, the Cobequid Community Health Centre and the Dartmouth General Hospital are not involved.

The provincial New Democratic Party is opposing the essential services legislation.

"[Premier] Stephen McNeil has botched negotiations with the nurses since the beginning," said party leader Maureen MacDonald. "This misguided legislation will make what was already a difficult situation much worse."

McNeil said the legislation protects the right to strike, but in a limited fashion. 

"We're just doing what we think is right by patients and striking the balance for ensuring that we protect the workers' right to strike if they wish, but also ensuring that there are services in this province that are essential to Nova Scotians," he said Monday. 

The legislation could pass later this week or early next week. 

The back-to-work legislation also applies to other health-care unions including those who work in seniors' homes, paramedics, 911 operators and those working in community services. It doesn't take away the right to strike, but it severely limits the number of people who can walk off the job.

With files from The Canadian Press