Northern contractors key to Northern prosperity

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Alfred Moses was able to hang his hat on a housing announcement near the end of the 18th Legislative Assembly.

At the beginning of August, the GNWT’s Housing Corporation, which he was responsible for, cut the ribbon on a 17-unit affordable housing development in Inuvik.

It was an example of everything going according to plan. New, efficient housing for a vulnerable population in a fairly remote corner of the territory, plus the benefit of the much-needed employment that was created during the construction phase by Inuvik-based Cofly Construction.

At the time, Moses said he had “faith that this work will continue because it is the right thing to do.”

His heart was in the right place. The same can be said for the folks at the housing corporation who in mid-2016 – according to Allan Cleary, a a former construction manager at the agency — bypassed an established review process and approved what proved to be a problematic contract to Concept Energy Services Ltd., the company owned by Rocky Simpson, who is now the MLA for Hay River South.

Cleary says Concept’s proposal to build 19 two-bedroom duplexes contained all sorts of red flags. The company lacked experience building modular homes. The bid for the $9.3 million contract was far too low, said Cleary. The company was not properly vetted, he said.
Concept also owed nearly $2 million to the NWT Business Development Corporation – an amount that has yet to be paid.

The contract was cancelled in 2017 after Concept Energy failed to deliver on most of the work.

No one employs more people in the territory than the GNWT. But the government may support even more employment downstream through the millions of dollars worth of contracts it awards every year.

A cursory review of a list posted to OpenNWT.ca (which is not a GNWT organization, so the figures aren’t official) shows in fiscal 2018-19, 729 contracts were awarded by GNWT departments. This covers everything from about $10,000 for an ATV for the Lands department in the Sahtu to $15,000 for a colour photocopier for Justice in Fort Smith all the way up to just shy of $15 million for “goods” for all NWT communities, awarded by Infrastructure.

Mistakes like the Concept Energy debacle are going to happen. The powers that be ought to have known awarding a large contract to a company ill-equipped to carry it out was a bad idea.

But Northern contractors that employ Northern people who spend their paycheques in the North rely on contracts awarded by the GNWT, the federal government and municipal governments. Without this activity, there can be no hope of diversifying the economy and the impending diamond mine closures loom even larger.

In southern Canada, contracting is more cutthroat. There, dozens or hundreds of qualified companies compete for tenders. Up here, that isn’t always the case and the GNWT should not be faulted for seeking out a Northern solution to a Northern problem.

Concept Energy was not able to to deliver on the contract but Northern companies still deserve the benefit of the doubt. They provide jobs to hundreds of Northerners and will be key to the territory weathering whatever economic storm is heading our way.

When awarding contracts, the government should make sure a company can do the job. But Northern companies should always come first wherever and whenever possible.

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