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Q&A with Penny Ballantyne

Kevin Wilson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 18/02) - Born in Churchill, Man., and raised in both the Eastern and Western Arctic, Penny Ballantyne spent 25 years working in government. Four weeks ago, the former deputy minister took over the reins of the NWT/Nunavut Workers' Compensation Board.

NNSL Photo

Penny Ballantyne on living in the North: "You have an opportunity to make a difference...and it's a great place to raise a family. I wouldn't have done it any differently." - Kevin Wilson/NNSL photo

What prompted you to go from being a deputy minister to being the head of an arm's length agency like the Workers' Compensation Board?

Well, I should start by saying that I always really enjoyed the deputy's role. It provides a level of challenge in terms of public service jobs that's kind of hard to get anywhere else, in terms of the scope of the work and the day-to-day intensity.

I had the opportunity to take some time off and I think I was just ready at this point, not only in my career. I just wanted to do something different and the WCB offered me that challenge.

What's it like going from a very behind-the-scenes role -- running interference for a very public figure -- to actually being almost a public figure in your own right?

Well, as a deputy, one serves a minister, the premier, and the cabinet.

Here, I'm serving the board of directors appointed by two ministers from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. There's a difference right there in terms of the geographic area that I'm serving.

Serving a board is kind of like having a lot of ministers in some ways. The board is balanced to provide perspectives from the employer community, the worker community, and the general public. So you're still trying to balance all the various interests that are out there.

How long were you involved with the GNWT?

I've worked off and on for the GNWT since I graduated from university in 1977. I've taken time off to have three kids, and I'd been back full time with the GNWT for 10 years.

Now you're in a position where it's not just the GNWT. You also have a responsibility to Nunavut. You have to be responsive to the worker community and the employer community in Nunavut. Was it a challenge to get yourself back into a sort of pre-division mindset again?

Not really. That's one aspect of the job that was really attractive to me. I spent time in the Eastern Arctic when I was a little girl. My family lived in the East for about 10 years when I was growing up, so I've always had an affection for that part of the North. And I've always enjoyed working over there. I'd been fortunate in all the work I'd done with the GNWT to travel to almost every community in Nunavut and work in all the regions.

It's very familiar to me and it's such an exciting time to be working with Nunavut as well, so I'm very pleased about that aspect of the job.

Have you managed to get over there since you took on this job?

I tried last week, but the weather was out in Iqaluit, so I only got as far as Rankin Inlet and unfortunately had to go back. But I'm there on Monday for the week.

Ever work with (Nunavut Minister responsible for WCB) Kelvin Ng before?

Yes, Kelvin was minister for health and social services when I was deputy.

There's a mindset you have to have as deputy, and there must be a different mindset you have to have in your new job. What have you found to be the biggest adjustment you've had to make mentally?

I would say there are more similarities than differences. One's still faced with the challenge of running a large organization, having staff, in this case over two territories, having responsibility for a multimillion-dollar budget, being accountable for the safeguarding of those assets, and ultimately being accountable in this case to the board of directors for what goes on here today.

In that sense, it's very similar to the kind of accountability the deputy ministers have for what's going on in their departments. In both cases, too, you're governed by the legislation that's established either the department or in this case, the WCB.

The major difference is the direct relationship I had with the minister. Here the relationship is with the board of directors.

When officially did you take on this job?

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with (former WCB president) Jerry Meyers before he retired and I officially started on the 18th of January.

Have you been taking a lot of binders home the last three or so weeks?

There's been a lot of reading, but my first few days were actually spent in a board meeting. That was very useful. I had an opportunity to connect with some of the stakeholders.

Do you see there's a need or an opportunity for you to put a particular stamp on the organization?

I don't know that I approach my work in that way. My primary responsibility is the prudent stewardship of the board's assets, the people who work in the organization and the other resources that are here.

My personal stamp, if I had one, is to try to continuously raise the bar for myself in terms of the standard of my performance. But I don't think that I have an agenda to put a personal stamp on the organization other than to make it the best it can be.

When you've got time to relax, how do you do it?

Well, I'm a pretty avid cross-country skier and that's my escape in the winter, and it's gardening in the summer. That's always been a passion for me.

I think the major attraction of being in the North has been the combination of being able to have really interesting work where you have an opportunity to make a difference and the North being a great place to raise a family. Our three kids were raised here, and I wouldn't have done it any differently.