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Economy

Filling NWT vacancies is almost impossible. Now what?


It’s not just doctors and nurses. The NWT’s staffing crisis is increasingly visible across a swath of key positions, leaving services hanging by a thread.

A succession of federal ministers visited the territory in recent weeks, each responsible for a sector – childcare, tourism, the economy – suffering because so few people are available to work.

Ministers are throwing money at the problem and promise broader solutions involving immigration, but demand for workers is already at a critical high and some industry leaders think the situation will get worse before it gets better.

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“That’s something we have brought up to everybody,” said Patricia Davison, chair of the NWT Early Childhood Association, which represents childcare workers.

“We see the sector cracking a little bit right now. We lost some family day homes, and losing any spaces is not good. Waiting lists are so long.

“I’m worried that if this doesn’t work out soon, some programs will be closing spaces because they don’t have the staff, or the resources and support to retain staff.

“You can’t run early childhood programs without staff. You can’t. It’s impossible.”

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The effect on services available in the territory is widespread.

In the private sector, airlines like Fort Smith’s NWAL have cut back their schedules because they cannot find pilots. Yellowknife restaurants and bars can’t fill vacancies and are closing early, if they open at all. Eleven times in July and August, power distributor Northland Utilities told customers its Yellowknife or Hay River offices were closed because of a staff shortage.

In the public sector, the City of Yellowknife this week asked for more time to meet some of its environmental filing requirements because of staff shortages. The NWT government has just rolled out a package designed to address a 26-percent healthcare position vacancy rate, and is searching for more agency nurses to plug the gaps.

What compounds the North’s current predicament, compared to southern Canada and other nations in similar situations, is that NWT businesses and governments already found roles tough to fill in previous years, when the going was good elsewhere.

Now, with everyone clamouring for workers, keeping services and facilities open in the territory is harder than ever.

Stanton emergency room ‘lucky’ to stay open

Healthcare is the clear focal point of the crisis.

Updates about reduced services are now near-daily in the territory. The latest, on Wednesday, informed Yellowknife residents that some foot care services are being halted for people who need help with the likes of callouses, corns or ingrown toenails, conditions that get in the way of daily life and mobility.

It’s hard to estimate precisely how many people that affects. The territory’s health authority told Cabin Radio around 70 people are on the waiting list for that kind of service, but some of them will still receive it because foot care remains on offer to people receiving a broader suite of home care services. (Only people purely seeking foot care help are hit by the new shutdown.)

Blaming staffing shortages, an authority spokesperson said by email: “The home care team is focusing on clients who have higher-acuity home care needs and this is why the service change was made. Basically, those who are assessed and identified as needing urgent care will get it.”

That’s essentially the message across the system, with almost half of the territory’s communities receiving some form of reduced or emergency healthcare service.

When urgent care is needed, the emergency room at Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital is the backstop. Without Stanton’s emergency room, the NWT would have little choice but to medevac dozens of patients weekly to facilities in Alberta.

This summer, Stanton’s emergency room came close to running out of staff.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights at my house, for sure,” said Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician who has worked in Yellowknife for the past 11 years and is now spending time studying in the United Kingdom.

Howard said schedulers were struggling to fill “huge gaps” in Stanton’s emergency room staffing with only weeks to spare.

“Recruiters were working their tails off but there were no emergency room doctors,” she said, characterizing the emergency room’s ability to remain open as a “pretty lucky outcome.”

“I’m almost a bit worried that, because we did manage to keep the emergency room open with not too much discernible change in service, people in the NWT might think we’re immune from the huge problem that ERs around the country have had this summer,” said Howard, pointing to hospital closures in other parts of Canada.

Asked what would have happened if the facility had closed, she replied: “We would have had to have some contingency plan. I don’t want to guess at what we would have come up with.

“We had people come up for just a couple of days. That’s what it took to keep the place open. I am so grateful.”

Pandemic caused a staffing reset

Howard says the Covid-19 pandemic burned out some healthcare workers and convinced others to move closer to family, which ordinarily means leaving the North. The same factors have hit other sectors, too.

Bobby Drygeese says he has “a lot of trouble” finding staff for his tourism venture, a cultural awareness camp outside Dettah, as the tourist economy ramps back up post-pandemic.

Drygeese says trained staff were forced to leave during the Covid-related shutdown and that now means starting from scratch.

“All the training and work we did before – those people are all over the place, doing different jobs,” he said earlier this month.

“It takes a lot of time for them to get comfortable at other jobs, too, so now it’s hard to recruit staff.

“Everybody else has to pay a little bit more to get more staff, and so we’re stuck in that boat, because our costs are still the same but pricing went up for staff. So we asked the tourism minister to help with wage subsidies and things like that.”

The federal tourism minister, Randy Boissonnault, met Drygeese and other operators during a visit to Yellowknife earlier this month.

Boissonnault arrived as part of an unusual wave of federal ministers. At least five passed through Yellowknife in the same week, visits apparently not coordinated. (“I was also surprised by how many of my colleagues happened to be in Yellowknife this week,” admitted Karina Gould, the minister of families, children and social development, when asked.)

Each minister heard the same thing: governments, businesses and non-profits can’t find staff.

Boissonnault is looking to immigration for one solution.

He told Cabin Radio the federal government is exploring ways to let international students work more than their current cap of 20 hours a week, how to get immigrants into the territory faster, and how to eliminate “some of the red tape” such as the paperwork required for labour market impact assessments, a hurdle employers must clear before offering a job to someone who needs sponsorship to work in Canada.

The federal government this week reported Canada is set to exceed its immigration goal this calendar year, granting permanent residency to more than 430,000 people.

“I want to make sure the territory is getting its fair share of people we’re bringing into the country,” Boissonnault said. “We’ve got to make sure people understand what the opportunities are up here.”

He concluded: “Watch what other ministers and I are going to do between now and Christmas on the labour front.”

Childcare ‘also a solution’

Gould, who came to the NWT to hear how the first steps in the federal $10-a-day childcare plan are rolling out, said staffing represents “an issue we have to be very seized with.”

She said finding a “qualified workforce” to help roll out cheap childcare in smaller NWT communities was one of the biggest challenges the federal program faces in the North. The employment rate is high, Gould noted, meaning most people in the workforce already have jobs, and the cost of living can put off people looking to move from the south.

The federal childcare plan primarily involves using money to incentivize the work and recruit staff, but childcare providers have argued salaries are already quite low and need a big shift simply to become adequate, never mind attractive.

“We talked at length about the need for hiring packages, initiatives and incentives for people to go into the early childhood profession and stay in the early childhood profession,” said Davison, the industry association chair, of her meeting with Gould.

Davison worries that the territorial government’s implementation of the federal childcare program – the subject of fierce opposition earlier this year, partly because of the way the GNWT is capping childcare providers’ annual fee increases – could get in the way of attempts to recruit more workers.

For the coming year, fees cannot increase by more than 2.3 percent, the NWT government has said.

“We’ve all seen inflation rise quadruple that,” said Davison.

“At first, we talked about a liveable wage. But if you can walk across the street and make double that, it doesn’t make sense to stay in early childhood. We need incentives like benefits, retirement plans and all of that stuff that professionals expect.

“You can’t just take money that programs are already getting and say, ‘Here you go, it’s new money.’ We need new money into the sector to be able to hire and retain staff.”

A new set of incentives for NWT childcare workers is scheduled to appear this fall. Gould said the federal approach to childcare can, in the long term, help to expand the workforce if those incentives make a difference and help to create more spaces.

“The flip side is that childcare is also a solution,” the minister said.

“In Quebec 25 years ago, when they implemented universal childcare, they went from the lowest to the highest female workforce in the country. If people in other jurisdictions now join the workforce at the same rate they did in Quebec 25 years ago, that’s another 200,000 workers available right here, right now in our country.”

The ministerial parade into Yellowknife continued with the visit of Dan Vandal, the northern affairs minister who holds responsibility for the North’s economic development.

Vandal spoke after touring the remediation of Giant Mine, a billion-dollar project lasting decades that, over the next few years, promises to add hundreds more well-paid jobs to Yellowknife’s market. If the current conditions persist, that could further stretch other employers.

“It’s important to look at the full picture,” Vandal said.

“The economy is recovering after two years of the pandemic. The economy is growing and the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in many, many years. Our challenge is to make sure that we can find more workers.

“We are working with the territories, with the private sector, with unions to try to do training. We’re investing approximately a billion dollars annually in the skilled trades through grants, loans, tax credits. We’re doubling the funding in our partnership with unions.

“The North has unique issues when it comes to the job market. That’s why I’m here, as minister of northern affairs. We are paying extra attention to what’s happening in the North.”

But the detail of how, exactly, those unique issues will be solved remains hard to pin down.

If money and immigration don’t provide rapid solutions, the Northwest Territories faces years in which vital services will limp along with a skeleton staff, raising the possibility of exhausting the few people still doing important jobs – others include water and sewer servicing, or child protection – and compounding the issue.

Doubling down on strengths

Howard, the Yellowknife emergency room physician, acknowledged that the NWT now struggles to offer the pay bumps and other financial incentives that previously elevated northern healthcare work above positions in the south. Southern jurisdictions are now far more financially competitive.

She advocates for a separate approach that amplifies northern culture and hospitality, and relies on making the NWT the most pleasant place in which to do an important job.

“I’ve been asking the locums what keeps them coming here, and why they stopped going to other places,” she said of the short-term workers who come to Stanton Territorial Hospital to fill gaps.

“Consistently, people come here because they feel like it’s a medically useful thing for them to be doing. We have a not-entitled population compared to a lot of the country. People serving high-income populations in Vancouver feel they are serving the worried well. Coming here, they feel like they are doing real, useful medicine. That is something we have going for us.

“People really like the ability to come and see what an Indigenous-majority part of Canada is like, with all of the conversations around reconciliation and Undrip. We have a long way to go but we have systemized that in a way a lot of other places haven’t. That’s helping them see what they can help bring into being when they go home. We have an Indigenous premier, and Indigenous MP. That’s not a common situation across Canada.

“It’s all about making people feel loved. People have been so burnt-out. They’re coming from places where people have been protesting in front of hospitals. The little things can make a really big difference: making sure we set them up in accommodation where somebody checks in on them, that their car rental worked out, see if they want to go for a bike ride, go canoeing, go for dinner.”

Howard’s partner bought a locum a ticket for Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks music festival. She says the locum is coming back to fill future shifts.

“Welcoming people, and making them as much a part of a community as we can, keeps them coming back,” she said.

“That kind of thing, in the context of disconnection, can be the difference. It’s about relationships and really seeing people and getting to know them, probably more than it is about money, and this community excels at relationship-building.

“If we can double down on our strengths, it can make a huge difference.”

Laurissa Cebryk contributed reporting.

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