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No end to hearings

Pay-equity issue for GNWT employees still smouldering

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Sep 07/01) - The convoluted road towards resolving what will likely be the most costly labour dispute in the territorial government's history is still taking its passengers nowhere fast.

Barbara Wyness: GNWT using more stalling tactics.

Along the road stretches a 12-year battle by the Union of Northern Workers to get the government to atone for approximately 5,300 current and former female employees, it says were underpaid.

On Aug. 27, the body charged with resolving the pay-equity case between the GNWT and the Union of Northern Workers -- The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal -- met in Ottawa to decide how many expert witnesses the territorial government can call into the hearings on its behalf.

In the end, the tribunal compromised by allowing the GNWT to call seven of 10 witnesses they requested -- a move which the union says violates the Canada Evidence Act. Normally a judge or presiding body only allows for five expert witnesses to be called.

"They gave them two extra witnesses, which is just going to make it (the hearing process) longer," says union spokesperson Barbara Wyness.

"Why would the GNWT want a judge from Wales? That's beyond me."

Of the three witnesses disqualified by the tribunal, two weren't even from the country. One is the deputy judge of the High Court of England and Wales and the other is the former General Counsel for the American Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Such requests, Wyness says, are indicative of the government's foot dragging over the case since it first came to light in 1989.

"The GNWT have been accused more than once of applying delay tactics," says Wyness, referring to a Canadian Human Rights Commission report released in March 2000, which criticizes the territorial government for their slow response in settling the matter.

"Things have taken longer than we've expected," concedes Shaleen Woodward, the GNWT's manager for equal pay.

But Woodward pointed out that the government has held out an olive branch to the union a number of times, including a collective agreement offer in Dec. 1998 to no avail.

Moreover, since the case began, the government has paid out $26 million in individual settlement offers to 85 per cent of the affected employees.

Nonetheless, the fight drags on. The tribunal hearings have been going on since 1998 and the government has yet to present its case.

"Figuring out what's going on with the sessions is not a precise science," says Woodward, who says the government may not even take the stand until early next year.

Legal fees spent by the government in Feb. 2000 totalled $1.7 million. They have mushroomed considerably since then and continue rise with no foreseen end.

"It's been costing millions of dollars a year," says Woodward.

Hearings resume Sept. 13. For now, the road to resolving the case will wind itself along indefinitely.