Residents who attended a virtual public meeting on Tuesday said the Northwest Territories’ affirmative action policy is ineffective and the territorial government needs to do more to attract and retain Indigenous employees.
The NWT legislature’s Standing Committee on Government Operations, which is chaired by Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson and made up of regular MLAs, held the meeting to better understand the “systemic barriers to increasing the representation of Indigenous people in the public service.” Six residents across the territory shared their experiences, highlighting faults with the policy and areas for improvement.
Among the issues raised were concerns with internal nepotism and a lack of hiring oversight, entry level positions and other jobs requiring too many qualifications, and the need to decentralize government jobs from Yellowknife.
Dennis Nelner, an Indigenous resident of Fort Simpson who works with the NWT Department of Finance, said the territorial government needs to work on recruiting and retaining Indigenous male employees.
Nelner, who works with the Union of Northern Workers, said workplace issues he has personally experienced or heard about include abuse from managers, toxic work cultures, exploitation of Indigenous experiences and culture, and a failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
He added there are a number of pitfalls with the NWT’s dispute resolution process that typically don’t end up benefitting employees.
Indigenous staff ‘need to feel valued’
Dezerae Pidborochynski, an Indigenous employee in Yellowknife, said the government should rethink if academic degrees are necessary for all job postings that list them as a requirement, and there’s a need for more details on how equivalencies will be considered.
Many NWT government job postings do not outline what is considered an equivalency nor how it will be weighed during the hiring process. That, Pidborochynski said, can make it unclear to people interested in working for the government what skills they need to acquire, or may already possess, and can deter them from applying to jobs.
For those who have been hired, Pidborochynski said some employees are overlooked when it comes to training opportunities and career advancement.
“If we want to retain Indigenous staff, they need to feel valued and they need to know that they’re going to be able to move up into those positions,” she said.
“They need to know that when opportunities become available they’re going to be available to them too, not just for whomever is the preference of the manager in the department.”
Representatives from the Fort Smith Métis Council said there need to be serious consequences for employees and managers who do not follow the affirmative action policy.
They said the organization is prepared to start appealing job appointments or hires on behalf of their members because employees are scared about causing workplace rifts or future negative impacts.
Several presenters discussed the ineffectiveness of that appeal process.
According to the NWT’s latest Public Service Annual Report, of the 87 staffing appeals filed in 2020-2021, only one was upheld, 71 were denied, one had “no appeal rights,” 10 were withdrawn, and four were classified as appeals with the Northwest Territories Power Corporation.
29% of GNWT workforce is Indigenous
In September 2020, the legislature’s Standing Committee on Government Operations said increasing the representation of Indigenous people at all levels of public service would be its priority for the remainder of the 19th Legislative Assembly.
In March 2021, regular MLAs passed a motion requesting that the territorial government reviews its policies and determine where racial and cultural bias may exist, including hiring practices.
While the territorial government has long had an affirmative action policy, statistics show the number of Indigenous employees remains low.
According to the 2020-2021 public service report, 29 percent of the territorial government’s workforce is Indigenous. Of those employees, twenty-one percent identify as female and eight percent identify as male.
Comparatively, about half of the territory’s population identifies as Indigenous.
NWT finance minister Caroline Wawzonek – who has jurisdiction over human resources – said in November 2020, the affirmative action policy had been “often criticized as being ineffective” because Indigenous representation in the territorial government’s workforce has remained around 30 percent “for the last several decades.”
When looking at senior management positions in the NWT government as of March 31, 2021, 20 percent were filled by Indigenous people, 20 percent by non-Indigenous residents who were born in the territory or have lived here for more than half their life, and 61 percent by “other” employees.
The territorial government said in 2020 it would be introducing Indigenous employment targets by department, which would identify and address barriers to employment for Indigenous people.
Residents can still submit thoughts about the NWT’s affirmative action policy or letters of concern to the standing committee via email.
Input from the public will be compiled in a report and recommendations to the territorial government.
A note on the GNWT’s figures: the territorial government uses the phrases “Indigenous Aboriginal” and “Indigenous Non-Aboriginal” when reporting on it’s staff numbers. Cabin Radio does not use those phrases because they can be confusing.
Indigenous Aboriginal refers to someone who is Dene, Inuit, or Métis and was either born in the Northwest Territories or has lived here for more than half of their life.
Indigenous Non-Aboriginal in general refers to someone who isn’t Dene, Inuit, or Métis but was born in the territory or has lived here for more than half of their life.