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Nunavut 'not ready' for devolution

Karen Mackenzie
Northern News Services
Monday, June 18, 2007

IQALUIT - A federal report arguing that Nunavut lacks enough trained workers to proceed with immediate devolution was seconded by representatives of the territory's frontline workers.

Highlights from the Mayer Report:

"Nunavut faces significant operational, financial and social challenges that raise concerns over the GN's ability to assume additional responsibilities."

"Nunavut is also a territory that has incredible potential and opportunity."

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

The federal and territorial government should adopt a "phased approach" to devolution, and approach the process "one step at a time."

Canada, the GN and NTI should work together to create pre-employment training for Inuit in a number of technical, scientific and professional positions.

NTI should be a "full participant in the negotiating process, and should be provided with the funds to do so.

Nunavut should look to the Yukon devolution process for guidance.

"Most of us who live and work in Nunavut understand the benefits of devolution and support devolution, but we are not at the capacity within our own public government, and I agree that we're not ready at this time," said Doug Workman, head of the Nunavut Employees Union.

The report, written by Paul Mayer, was commissioned by the Minister for Indian and Northern Affairs and released June 11.

The Quebec lawyer met with officials of the federal and territorial governments and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) ahead of its writing.

In it, Mayer states that the Government of Nunavut (GN) is not yet ready to take control of its lands, water and mineral resources, but should continue to work towards the hand-over of responsibilities via a "phased approach."

He addresses a number of geographic and social challenges, but places significant blame on the lack of adequately trained staff in both the government and private sectors.

"I'm not casting stones. It's not just a problem in Nunavut," said Mayer following the release. "But successful devolution requires qualified personnel and high service standards, I don't see that currently available."

In support of this, he points to the territory's high rate of turnover and a transient, often inexperienced workforce.

NTI president Paul Kaludjak, however, said he feels that many critics overlook the local labour pool, and that companies often bring in outside staff for work that could be done by local labourers and administrative staff - "pretty much all across the board."

"The workforce in Nunavut is quite capable of rising to the occasion when need be. This is something I don't want people to see as an obstacle," he said. "We just need to tap into it."

Premier Paul Okalik was unavailable for comment.

Currently, about 17 per cent of the GN's positions are vacant, according to Workman. "But we think some of the coverage is not by way of actual employees - in fact there is a high rate of casuals," he said.

"We believe that in the health and social services department up to one third are casual employees, and there is a big use of contractors in the workplace - like the agency nurses - who don't offer continuous programming."

Workman added that his organization has noted a drop in the retention rate from about 2.1 years of service in 2003 and 2004 to 1.5 years of service now.

He attributed this change to increased costs of fuel and power, as well as a rise in GN housing costs.

"I just think that a phasing approach, which is what (Mayer) recommends, is attainable, but it can't happen until the government has shown that it can retain its staff, deal with training and retention issues."

Jimmy Jacquard, head of the Nunavut Teachers' Association, and Cheryl Young, head of the new nurses' local, both echoed the problems in their respective fields.

"We have teachers leaving now who are saying it's basically the cost of living and housing that's driving them out, and I don't see that improving," Jacquard said.

And among nurses, "the burnout rate is fast, transience is high and one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that they have no incentives for retention," Young said. "(Mayer) doesn't use the word recruitment - it's retention - the exact words we used when speaking recently to (Deputy Health Minister) Alex Campbell. It gives us, personally, the feeling we're on the right track."