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Younger GNWT climate change staff are losing faith, fast

Last modified: April 28, 2022 at 1:10pm

The Northwest Territories doesn’t have many climate change staff. Those it does have often feel overworked, overlooked, and underwhelmed. Some are leaving.

No one has left more publicly than Will Gagnon, who made known his resignation from the territory’s Department of Infrastructure in a tweet last week. He left his post on Earth Day.

In his resignation letter, seen by Cabin Radio, Gagnon said he felt “irrelevant, confused and gaslit” as the department’s climate change strategic lead.

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“I felt bullied into not including reports that point to climate risks on northern infrastructure in my work,” he wrote, “and I felt ridiculed when I was called ‘alarmist and irresponsible’ for writing ‘climate crisis’ in a work document.”

The letter sets out concern about the actions of managers and what Gagnon feels is an “immense disconnect between working-level staff and senior management on climate change.”

Speaking after making public his resignation, he said his eight months in the role “took a really big toll on my well-being.”

“What we’re doing, what the GNWT is doing, is not enough. But I think that wasn’t sitting well with senior management,” Gagnon said. “I don’t like being in a place where my work is not recognized, where I’m just dismissed. It doesn’t feel good.”

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Gagnon, an engineer, has significant experience in the fields of climate change and sustainable development. He said he was attracted to a job that, after working for non-profits, would allow him to effect change from within government, leading climate change mitigation efforts as the NWT constructs and maintains the likes of buildings and highways.

“It felt like where I would actually implement change,” he said after resigning. “Sadly, that’s not what I lived.”

‘We stand to lose a lot’

The Government of the Northwest Territories says it is empowering employees to take action and demonstrating real progress in its quest to reduce emissions and adapt northern communities to the threats they face.

In the past week, Cabin Radio examined that assertion in interviews with half a dozen current and former territorial government employees whose jobs in some way involved climate change. The positions in question spanned several departments.

While Gagnon has publicized his concerns, the others asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive topics related to their careers.

All of those interviewed echoed the fear that despite what sometimes seems an overwhelming workload, change is hard to identify and not happening at a meaningful rate.

“I have a lot of the same feelings,” said Worker One, a current employee at a separate department, referring to Gagnon’s resignation letter (which was widely circulated within the GNWT in the past week).

“There are a lot of people at the GNWT who do care about climate change, but we’re not really set up for success and to take decisive action,” Worker One said.

“It definitely made me emotional,” they said of Gagnon’s letter. “We stand to lose a lot. I was proud of him for doing that. It’s scary that there are people with a lot of power in our government, who have decision-making power, who are actively working to not care about climate.”

Worker Two, at the Department of Infrastructure, said they hoped senior staff “take his resignation seriously as constructive criticism and give us more decision-making authority, resources, training and time.”

“How Will was treated? I think that was absolutely ridiculous,” said Worker Five, a former territorial government employee.

“If Will’s being treated like that, just imagine how Indigenous people have been treated. They will say the right things and write the right things and put it on paper but, when it comes to actually doing it and trying to resolve issues, they are not great.”

What is going wrong?

Climate change staff interviewed by Cabin Radio described a working world of never-ending planning, too little action, and senior employees who do not appear engaged in the crisis unfolding.

That clash of understandings – the urgency felt by younger staff versus what they see as inertia at the top – is exemplified by what Gagnon said was his department’s warning that he could not use the phrase “climate crisis.”

“I understand there are communications practices we should use to present stories, ideas and concepts to the public,” he said.

“But I don’t want to be called alarmist and irresponsible for calling it a climate crisis, because it is a climate crisis. That’s just… it’s gaslighting, right?”

Burned trees in a burn area near Reid Lake in August 2021
Burned trees in a burn area near Reid Lake in August 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Asked about this incident, the territorial government told Cabin Radio that as a whole, “the GNWT does not consider the phrase ‘climate crisis’ alarmist.”

However, the GNWT said its documents and strategies ordinarily use the term “climate change” instead as, in the territory’s words, “it is currently the most widely accepted term to describe the phenomena, both nationally and internationally.”

Worker One, who works in another department, said they were able to use the phrase “climate crisis” and were, in their words, “encouraged to tell the truth and face the hard truths.”

In a written statement – requests for an interview were declined – the territory said: “The GNWT recognizes climate change is a serious challenge for this generation and future generations and it is impacting the NWT’s land and environment, its infrastructure, culture, heritage, economy and the health and safety of our residents. Our overarching goal is to take an evidence or science-based approach to address climate change.”

Gagnon provided a similar description of the attitude adopted by front-line staff, but queried the extent to which senior managers were genuinely hastening to solve the challenges posed by climate change.

“Decision-making is restricted to a few hands at the top and they are really disconnected from the rest,” he told Cabin Radio.

“If we had more youth with decision-making authority at the GNWT, these things wouldn’t happen. All the power is held in the hands of senior officials who have been there for a long time and are likely to be older.

“I don’t think they have this strong, visceral connection to ‘I will be alive in 30 years.’ It’s hard for them to understand that, maybe, and so I don’t want to blame them for that. I think younger generations obviously care so much more about that, and I think there’s a power imbalance there.”

Staff who knew of Gagnon’s work prior to joining the territorial government acknowledged there was always a likelihood of friction when combining his passion and activism with the territorial government’s pace of change.

“I was excited but nervous,” one former colleague said. “I was excited about the opportunity of him working with us, but just nervous that it would be harder to sell some of his ideas.”

Will Gagnon delivers a presentation in Rotterdam. Photo: Supplied

But Gagnon isn’t the only one who reported the impression that all the drive is coming from front-line staff and is not matched at senior level.

Worker One said in their experience, “all the climate change people are lower-level” and managed by people whose main focus is not climate change.

Worker Two, at the Department of Infrastructure, said staff needed “an assistant deputy minister or a deputy minister saying, ‘This is important, let’s put some money toward this.’ Some money, some time. I think it would make a huge difference.”

Worker Four, a former employee at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the feeling that senior staff weren’t motivated to make big decisions bled down to middle management.

“The middle people are afraid to push for stuff because they think they’re not going to get it,” Worker Four said.

All planning, all the time

An almost universal complaint in interviews for this report was that time is spent working on plans instead of taking urgent action.

“There’s a lot of checking boxes, a lot of reporting, a lot of gathering data and a lot of making plans,” said Worker One.

“The way this government is set up is that we just make a lot of plans, and the plans have to go through your manager, and the next person, and the next person, and get up to the deputy minister and the minister. You spend your 37 hours a week making plans. Especially in climate change. I have no authority to spend money or make things really happen.”

Worker Three said they left their position in a climate change role when the inability to get anything done became apparent.

“It’s like you’re planning for another plan that’s two years away. It’s all bullshit,” they said.

As an example, they described an approvals process through which even receiving permission to publish a Facebook post could take more than a month.

Worker Four, who left their role in similar circumstances, said the NWT government’s climate change annual report demonstrated, for front-line staff, a lack of meaningful activity.

“Look at it,” they said. “It summarizes a bunch of stuff that was already being done instead of looking at the action items that were identified as priorities across the NWT.

“Because there’s not a lot of money or political power, but you want to look good, you’re repackaging something that people were already doing.

“I don’t think the NWT is doing nothing. We are working on good projects. But we’re not doing enough new work. It feels fruitless as an employee because we could just be working but I’m answering the same questions, over and over, so a politician can have a good soundbite. And that’s where my time is going.”

The irony, Worker Four said, was that for all the lack of movement, staff felt exhausted by workloads packed with tasks that were not making a difference.

“You are going to work all the time and you go on stress leave,” they said.

“It was chronically understaffed for a long time,” said Worker Four of their time at the GNWT. Staff rapidly lost their enthusiasm and resigned, multiple employees said, repeatedly setting in motion a government hiring process infamous for taking months at the best of times.

Worker Three said efforts to urgently address climate change were hampered by that perpetual cycle of a months-long wait to hire someone, only to lose them almost immediately and begin the search again.

‘Staff are empowered,’ say GNWT

The territorial government, in its written response, insisted senior managers are committed to addressing climate change and employees are given the power to make change happen. (You can read the GNWT’s response in full here.)

Asserting that the NWT was one of the first governments in Canada to include climate change considerations in all high-level decision-making, the territory said that meant “climate change considerations are top of mind for GNWT senior management and all staff.”

The statement continued: “The GNWT is committed to providing a work environment where every employee is treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Staff are empowered to make progress on GNWT climate change actions as they are a priority of GNWT leadership and at all levels of the GNWT.”

NWT environment minister Shane Thompson, left, meets Greenland counterpart Kalistat Lund at COP26 in a photo posted by Thompson to Twitter
NWT environment minister Shane Thompson, left, meets Greenland counterpart Kalistat Lund at the COP26 climate conference in a photo posted by Thompson to Twitter.

Providing examples of work achieved to date, the territory said it had invested more than $115 million since 2018 in addressing greenhouse gas emissions. (For the purposes of comparison, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ 2022-23 operating budget is $99 million. The Department of Infrastructure’s 2022-23 operating budget is $279 million. Yellowknife is building a swimming pool at a cost of around $70 million.)

The territory said its annual greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 17 kilotonnes between 2018 and 2021, adding: “As a result of these actions, we estimate that by 2025 the GNWT will have reduced emissions by 46 kilotonnes as a direct result of its investments, and this will save northerners over $77 million in energy costs over the eight-year period between 2018 to 2025.”

If that 46-kilotonne reduction comes to pass, the territory will have to find another 150 or so kilotonnes in the five years after 2025 to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target, which is less ambitious than the latest federal target.

Senior GNWT staff have said meeting the 2030 target won’t be possible unless the Taltson hydro expansion is built. The hydro expansion is currently not funded.

Meanwhile, the territory says it is developing a new plan.

The 2022-25 Energy Action Plan, the territory stated, will set out “multi-year government actions and initiatives designed to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Energy Strategy.”

“The updated action plan will build on current projects and initiatives and continue successful programs, as well as include new activities that will reduce emissions and support secure, affordable and sustainable energy in the NWT,” the statement continued.

“The 2022-25 Energy Action Plan will include a review of the 2030 Energy Strategy, and will include modelling of the technical and financial feasibility of GHG reduction pathways up to and beyond 2030.”

Will the NWT reach its goal?

Nobody interviewed for this report expressed confidence that the Northwest Territories will meet its 2030 target.

“I don’t think so, at the current speed of things,” said Gagnon. “But things can change pretty fast, right? We can get a new minister in place, we can get new staff in place.”

“Not on the path we’re on right now,” said Worker One. “There are two sides to the climate issue. One is decarbonization and our climate targets, but also there’s the human side of things and adaptation, and we also don’t really seem to be doing that, either.”

Gagnon wants the emissions reduction target to be more ambitious but, more than that, he wants interim targets to be published so the territory can be held to account on its journey to 2030.

Worker Five agreed. “There needs to be a huge emphasis on accountability and oversight,” they said.

“We need a benchmark, some way to figure out if we’re reaching our goal,” Worker Two said. “Honestly? I don’t know if we will hit the target or not. I have no idea. If we are on track, it’s not discussed or openly shared. If it’s not on track, we need to all be aware of that.”

Beyond interim targets, asked what the GNWT could do to make things better for front-line climate change staff, Worker One replied: “Give me some coworkers. Stop being afraid of going against the status quo. Do something. Put some money toward this.”

They added: “I think there’s a lot of fear. A lot of change needs to happen but, the way I see it, we don’t really have another choice.”

On hearing of Gagnon’s resignation, Worker Two said: “I think this is a wake-up call for us, I really do. It sucks that Will had to go through this experience, but I’m proud of him making this statement.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to pause, take a look at what we’re doing and reassess. Maybe we’re doing everything we can, but I don’t think so.”

“I feel really discouraged by Will’s situation and looking at what’s happening,” said Worker One, “but there is still a lot of support coming from individual people who really care.

“I’m not totally defeated or ready to quit just yet.”

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