(Nunavut MLA Pat Angnakak in her legislative office in Iqaluit. Angnakak has become the face and the voice for bullied employees. Photo: APTN Investigates)
It took a suicidal employee to show Pat Angnakak just how bad things were in the government of Nunavut workplace.
The Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA always knew there were problems but nothing like this.
“She sat here in the office and she just sobbed and sobbed,” Angnakak told APTN Investigates. “And when she could speak she said, ‘I want you to know I’m suicidal. I want to die.’
“She said that she throws up every morning before she goes to work because she knows what kind of a day she’s going to have. She had a very bad boss.”
Conflict in the Nunavut civil service is nothing new. What is new is that Angnakak has become the face and the voice for bullied employees.
“I mean, I don’t have the magic wand, and I always tell them that. I say, ‘I can’t promise anything except one thing and that’s that I’m going to do my best for you.’”
Angnakak has taken the unofficial role to heart. She regularly questions Nunavut’s Human Resources Minister Keith Peterson in the House and follows up with deputy ministers.
“What I’m looking for is not necessarily that we all take the side of the employee and all go against the supervisor, but really what I’m looking for is harmony within the office.”
In the case of the suicidal, single mother, Angnakak spoke to Peterson directly to find options.
“She was a single parent so she needed the job and the job came with housing. She was backed into a corner, where she felt that she really couldn’t do anything to help the situation.”
Angnakak says the worker did try to resolve things on her own, by speaking to her deputy minister and the ethics officer. But nothing changed.
That frustrates Angnakak.
“We can do so much — it’s just we haven’t done anything. We’re still at the same spot. And this is not just me raising these issues. My colleagues in the House have raised these issues many times before.”
Peterson has said there are processes in place to address these issues but Angnakak says they can do more.
“We need to work with people here,” she said. “In what way can we keep people here committed to their jobs? How can we provide more support?”
Angnakak says most of the disagreements are between Inuit employees and non-Inuit managers. APTN Investigates has learned only 21 per cent of senior civil servants are Inuit.
This can lead to problems of a cultural nature, she said in an interview in her legislative office.
“Some people are more laid back…they’re not very aggressive. In some cases they are viewed as less important because they’re not right in your face, they’re kind of more in the background. So they’re not included in discussions, let’s say, even though it’s part of their job.
“More of the southern culture is to promote yourself: ‘Look at me, look what a great job I’m doing.’ Whereas here it’s not so much like that.”
The government of Nunavut is the biggest employer in the northern territory with 4,000 positions. Many of its jobs come with subsidized housing to offset sky-high rental costs.
In Iqaluit, for example, it’s not uncommon to pay $3,000 a month to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Losing that roof over their heads keeps many workers from speaking out about problems at work.
Angnakak says Inuit employees often find themselves in casual instead of permanent, full-time jobs that come with housing. And don’t find themselves joining the civil service after the union-negotiated four months or less.
“We’re up to 40 per cent or 50 per cent or maybe even higher where it’s casual versus full-time. That’s not good.”
That casual position is a scary place to be, she adds, because people can be let go if a problem develops between them and their bosses.
“When you’re employed full time it tells you a number of things: the government values you as an employee, they want to keep you around for the long term,” she said.
“When you’re on casual you don’t feel as respected as maybe they should; like, OK, you’re disposable.”
Angnakak says casual employees have told her they’ve been threatened and even told: “I can just go get somebody else if you don’t do what I want.
“Some of the ones I have heard who’ve come to me, those are the actual words: ‘You’re replaceable.’”
Whereas, Angnakak says, non-Inuit employees from southern Canada are hired in full time or longer term positions.
For a healthier workforce, Angnakak wants to see Nunavut adopt the Yukon model of establishing a public service commission.
“They have a workplace wellness office and there — if you and I had a disagreement — we would go to the executive director of that office. If I was your supervisor and you were my employee your case would go before a committee.”
The committee has representatives for Indigenous people, the union, the deputy minister and staff, who openly discuss the problem and put a plan in motion with built-in follow-up.
“A check and balance. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Meanwhile, Angnakak says that suicidal mom survived her crisis and is in a new role in a new department.
“It took a while but she has moved into a much better position.”