A Q & A with the health minister

Health Minister Glen Abernethy talks data breaches, addictions, his accomplishments and where he’s fallen short.
Brett McGarry/NNSL photo

Glen Abernethy has been an MLA with the 16th, 17th and now 18th Legislative Assembly for the riding of Great Slave.

In addition to being minister responsible for seniors, persons with disabilities and the public utility board, Abernethy is currently the minister of Health and Social Services for the NWT.

He was born in Iqaluit and moved to Yellowknife at a young age. He has spent most of his life in the North and in his spare time he plays in a ten-piece soul band.

News/North’s Brett McGarry caught up with the minister to discuss recent events and health related issues in the NWT.


There have been a handful of privacy breaches in recent months, most recently in Fort Simpson, what is being done to address the public’s concerns?

What’s fascinating is that we’ve had a large number of health breaches and the thing is, if we had never had the health information act, we never would have known about the breaches. We never would have had the opportunity to learn from them, we never would have had the opportunity to fix the issues.

But regarding the files in Fort Simpson, if you look at the photos online, they don’t look like any files we’ve used in any length of time. However they seem to have come from us, we’re trying to make sure that they did. In the meantime we are accepting responsibility for them and we have begun notifying all the individuals impacted.

We’re still trying to figure out where they came from and how they got there.

There seems to be a lot of opinions out there, but we’re tying to get the facts. We expect more, the public expects more. So we really want to know what the scenario is. The bottom line is that the act, for the first time, requires us to disclose these challenges.


There’s also been a lot of criticism around the auditor general’s report on child and family services. What’s being done to make this right?

When I became minister in 2013, I walked in during the middle of an audit that was being done.

What we came out with was the early days of Building Better Families, but before that information was even released, the audit showed up and said we were doing things poorly. Things were not being done well, we weren’t following up with our kids, not monitoring, limited standards of processes, information system sucks, we were not managing risk and in some cases increasing risks.

We took the findings of the audit which outlined structural changes that are necessary to improve the amount of accountability. Every recommendation they made about accountability structures we made immediately. We set ourselves on a five year plan and halfway through we heard they were coming back for another audit.

One thing that became clear in this most recent audit where we missed the mark is that we didn’t resource it properly. We didn’t bring in enough positions after the first audit to bring it through the change management process.

It’s quite difficult to go from an apprehension based system to one where people are trained to focus on supporting and building families.

In retrospect we definitely needed positions to help us transition and that’s where we fell down in the last audit. Sounds like it should be easy but we’re talking about generations of practice here and ways of thinking.

It’s our fault, I’ll acknowledge that straight up. One thing that happened was we were supposed to be doing two visits to homes per month, but we were only doing one.

So the auditor general said we were failing, which was correct, so we changed legislation to increase the visits to four times per month but we were still only doing one. So we looked worse and technically that is correct but we’re just no better than we were, which is completely unacceptable in all ways.

But we have made progress. If you look at child and family services in the territories the number of children in permanent care has decreased significantly. We’ve got families coming to us for voluntary agreements and supports, they’re coming to us, we’re not going out and apprehending children.


Amid the criticism is there work you’re doing that you’re particularly proud of?

Some of the areas that people criticize the most are the areas we’ve made the most progress in.

Take addictions and mental health for example. We have a new mental health act which provides us with tools that have never existed before.

The mental health act is very specific in who it helps, but it’s very modern and we’ve seen results from the groups of people it’s meant to target.

A lot of people are mad and want to see a treatment centre, but we have no plan to build a bricks-and-mortar treatment centre in the North.

We’ve had three or four treatment centres in the Northwest Territories, every one has been shut down. There were centres run by NGOs and private groups and those shut down. Once the board of directors shut down the Nats’ejee K’eh treatment centre, we took the money we were investing and decided to contract with four facilities in the south.

These facilitates have a wide range of staff with multiple experts, bigger buildings and facilities.

We’ve seen some profound results and some of things I’ve heard people say when I visited these facilities is that they were never going to go get treatment in the NWT because they would know the people getting treatment and they may even know the people who work there. There’s no anonymity and that makes it difficult to get to the root cause of the problem.


How do you plan on restoring faith in the ministry and yourself as an elected official?

I know a lot of MLAs are upset, but I also had a ton of people reaching out to us and saying ‘we know you’re making a lot of progress in a difficult area and it’s going to take time.’

Some of the Aboriginal leaders reaching out to us are saying they want to be involved in those changes moving forward and I’ve agreed to continue working with our Indigenous partners. Many continue to support the work and want increased involvement and we’ve committed to doing that.

Child and family services is an area that hasn’t had a lot of trust in a long time, but our rates of voluntary agreements, families coming to us, is huge. That alone suggest that there is some confidence and degree of belief that they can get with us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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