Nunavut MLA insists government can hire more Inuit in construction

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The Government of Nunavut can employ more Inuit on its capital projects, insists Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main.

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main: “The local labour force is (deemed) inferior compared to this transient workforce and I think it’s an unfair comparison.” photo courtesy of John Main.

“We’re 20 years into Nunavut this year and it’s a crying shame that we have not built up our construction tradespeople. We have not sufficiently invested into requiring more Inuit to be working at these projects,” Main said. “We have the people. We do not lack the labour force. We haven’t had the coordination and the investment into people’s education that would allow them to take these construction jobs.”

The GN’s current practice is to set Inuit labour targets on a community by community basis, based on the local labour market and past contracts of a similar scope.

The territorial government reached 37 per cent Inuit employment on contracts valued at more than $100,000 in 2015-16 and in 2016-17.

However, since the Nunavut Housing Trust overspending controversy of 2010 – when the budget was exceeded by $110 million and Inuit hiring was blamed for a portion of that – Main said he feels Inuit employment has never rebounded.

“What’s driving that I’m not sure. It could be tighter budgets. It could be the way that the Housing Corporation is contracting out their builds,” he said. “We need to be going in the opposite direction. We need to be raising those Inuit labour requirements… We’re trying to maximize the local benefit for these capital dollars.”

Although the Sanatuliqsarvik Trades Training School opened in Rankin Inlet in 2010, Main said it’s been a “learning curve for the college.” The trades school can accommodate more than 80 students at a time but hasn’t graduated near that many on an annual basis.

Main pointed out that the GN has set a goal of 85 per cent overall Inuit staff and has achieved 50 per cent. Yet MLAs had to fight to get the Inuit hiring target set at 20 per cent on the new correctional centre in Iqaluit instead of the 15 per cent that the Department of Justice was prepared to accept.

Complacency is a legitimate concern, he warned.

“If we just throw up our hands and we say, ‘Oh well, I understand we can’t get enough workers so I guess 15 per cent is enough – that, in my mind, is a real danger to us,” said Main. “We need to be pushing for more.”

Competing for workers

Construction projects can struggle to attract Inuit workers because employment is often seasonal, compared to jobs available through the Government of Nunavut and mines, which are year-round and higher paying, says Victor Tootoo. NNSL file photo

The construction industry is at somewhat of a disadvantage in trying to attract employees because the GN and mining companies can afford to pay more, according to Victor Tootoo, who has experience as a deputy minister dealing with procurement for construction projects.

“You’re not on a level playing field when it comes to attracting Inuit employment… so it’s difficult to attract and retain good, qualified Inuit employees,” said Tootoo, president of the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce, although he said he was speaking on his own behalf.

Another knock against many construction jobs is that they only last as long as the project itself, as opposed to permanent employment in other sectors, Tootoo noted.

During a March trip to Cambridge Bay, Matt Belliveau, executive director of the NWT and Nunavut Construction Association, said he heard that the education system, particularly under-performance in math, is a barrier. Lack of continuity in teachers is hindering learning, he said, and math is critical to passing the trades exam.

“It is a systemic issue, absolutely,” said Belliveau, adding that educators need to be informed of pathways to trades. “It’s a matter of creating those linkages between employers and apprentices and ensuring that youth had the education they need to take on the skilled work in this industry. If governments can support that, I do believe that they will see great improvements in the opportunities available to youth.”

Until more Nunavummiut workers become more readily available, Belliveau said it’s essential that construction companies aren’t hit with penalties due to a lack of local hiring unless it’s been made clear what more they can do.

From full Inuit employment to out of business

Simon Merkosak, owner of Merkosak Construction in Pond Inlet, says he’s no longer in the construction business and the lack of Inuit employment is a reason for it. photo courtesy of Simon Merkosak

In Pond Inlet, Simon Merkosak, owner of Merkosak Construction, told Northern Construction last year that he has completed several major projects with crews consisting exclusively of Inuit workers. When contacted in March for additional insights into his success in recruiting Inuit employees through his decades-old venture, Merkosak provided a startling response by email.

I’m no longer in building construction. Only one factor that brought this about of hardly Inuit being employed, Gov’t of Nunavut. Case closed,” Merkosak wrote.
He didn’t answer any other questions.

Main has heard the arguments against higher Inuit labour requirements. For one, there’s often the threat that it will inflate costs. Even if that’s true, it’s likely worth it, he maintained.

“If we take a holistic look at our needs as a government, we have to pay people who are unemployed, we have to support them. We have to provide them with housing; we have to pay them social assistance; unemployed people have higher health care needs,” he said. “In terms of dollars and sense there’s a very good argument for taking a look at Inuit employment and raising the bar.”

More analysis is needed if contractors are insisting that Inuit workers aren’t available, Main said. Are wages and benefits attractive enough and on par with imported southern workers’ compensation? Is recruitment happening from the surrounding region rather than just a single community? Are education standards an impediment, as Belliveau stated? These are questions that need to be answered in each case, he said.

Another factor that has arisen is that it’s sometimes difficult for local Inuit with families and other community commitments perhaps to meet the same output as transient southern hires who arrive with the expectation of working 12-hour days for weeks on end, said Main.

“The local labour force is (deemed) inferior compared to this transient workforce and I think it’s an unfair comparison,” he said.

Fact file
Inuit labour on GN construction contracts over $100,000
2016-17: 37 per cent achieved/31 per cent required
2015-16: 37 per cent achieved/29 per cent required
2014-15: 28 per cent achieved/23 per cent required
Source: Government of Nunavut

Fact file
Bonuses and penalties pertaining to Inuit labour on GN construction projects

2016-17: $655,771 in bonuses
$54,445 in penalties
2015-16: $1 million in bonuses
$21.595 in penalties
2014-15: $402,810 in bonuses
$26,968 in penalties
Source: Government of Nunavut

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