A group representing the NWT’s construction companies has asked the territorial government to re-examine its Covid-19 travel restrictions and consider delaying non-essential work.
The NWT and Nunavut Construction Association told Cabin Radio its members do not think pressing ahead with all GNWT infrastructure projects is worth the risk to the territory’s communities.
The association said some communities – it did not identify them – had “refused to let workers enter out of fear.”
At the moment, the NWT’s travel restrictions specifically exempt “persons involved in working on the construction of GNWT capital infrastructure projects.”
That means anyone working on one of those projects, unlike most residents, has no legal obligation to self-isolate for two weeks on entry into the territory.
“They’re operating under this blanket statement that all projects are essential,” said Matt Belliveau, the association’s executive director, on Tuesday.
“What we’re asking is: does the NWT’s chief public health officer believe avoiding a two-week delay on a housing project, or another project, is worth the risk of flying workers in from provinces with outbreaks?”
Belliveau said many projects could still proceed – on a delay – if workers took two weeks at a time to self-isolate on arriving in the territory, just as returning residents must.
The NWT government, approached about the association’s concerns shortly before 3pm on Tuesday, had not provided comment as of Wednesday morning.
It’s unclear how many NWT government infrastructure projects are proceeding across the territory.
‘Communities are not comfortable’
Belliveau said his association had contacted the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission last week seeking initial guidance. “We were anticipating there may be some challenges,” he said, referring to the continuation of work while much of the territory effectively shuts down in a bid to contain the virus.
By Tuesday morning, Belliveau said, he had heard of several companies concerned about the possible impacts on nearby communities.
“It’s clear at this point that communities are not comfortable with letting these workers in and companies aren’t comfortable pressing forward,” Belliveau told Cabin Radio.
“Right now, the GNWT is telling companies it’s their call, it’s a business decision. But if they choose to take those delays and not bring in those workers, it’s going to be at the companies’ cost.
“The GNWT, with this blanket statement, is saying they’re OK with that. We want some clarification.”
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, the association called on the territorial government to identify which projects are essential “and must proceed without delay.”
The association also wants the NWT government to clarify how company losses caused by delays related to Covid-19 will be handled in their contracts with the territory.
Lastly, the association asked the territorial government to “consult with community governments and elders before requiring companies to send workers into those communities.”
Companies being surveyed
The NWT association’s parent, the Canadian Construction Association, last week called on the federal government to offer support to companies during the pandemic.
In particular, the national association asked for federal agencies to “provide fair extensions of time and fair compensation … to remove much of the pressure” from construction companies dealing with work interruptions related to Covid-19.
The NWT association said it would now survey its members “to gather more information” on the issue of how the territorial government should amend its construction-related travel exemption.
The association, which also represents Nunavut, said it had heard from no members in that territory so far and taken no similar action. “We’ll be following up in Nunavut as well,” Belliveau said.
“By deeming all GNWT capital projects essential, the GNWT is forcing companies to move projects forward and put communities at risk, or bear the losses of shutting down the project at their own choosing,” the association’s Tuesday statement concluded.
“We are advised that communities have refused to let workers enter out of fear that Covid-19 will spread to Elders and other residents.
“Companies completing projects in NWT communities expected more support from their government.”
Clarification: April 1, 2020 – 13:04 MT. This article initially reported that some construction companies believe shutting down non-essential NWT infrastructure work to be a better way forward during the pandemic. The NWT and Nunavut Construction Association subsequently said it preferred to characterize the act of pausing a project while workers self-isolate as a delay rather than a shutdown.