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MLAs seek review of GNWT policies on racial, cultural bias in hiring

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos is urging the GNWT to review its hiring practices for racial and cultural bias. GNWT image

MLAs are calling on the GNWT to examine its policies on racial and cultural bias in government hiring practices.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos on Monday gave notice in the legislative assembly that she will move on Wednesday a motion urging the government to “review its policies and practices for racial and cultural bias, especially as they relate to education, health and social services, justice, housing and government hiring.”

Her motion was seconded by Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge.

Martselos’ motion followed her criticism of the GNWT’s “uneven application” of its affirmative action policy across 10 departments. Bureaucratic gaps and loopholes allow the government to work around the affirmative action policy, she said.

The MLA cited the experience of one of her constituents whose application for a job in the Department of Lands was unsuccessful after she was told she lacked experience. After looking further into the matter, Martselos said she discovered the position was filled through a direct appointment.

“I'm not OK with this,” she told the assembly. “There is something wrong with this picture. Some people argue that the direct appointments are a good thing for Indigenous people as it provides an alternative means of hiring Indigenous candidates into government positions. However, direct appointments could also create the opposite effect and can act as a loophole around the affirmative action policy.”

Direct appointments follow process, minister says

In a subsequent exchange, Caroline Wawzonek, minister responsible for human resources, said direct appointments are undertaken carefully and under specific rationales that departments must request and which are then reviewed.

The appointments are most often used when there is a job competition and a position can’t be filled, or through the Indigenous Gateway and internship programs, according to the minister.

Appointments also tend to favour affirmative action candidates, Wawzonek said.

According to data provided by the Department of Finance in November of 2020, there have been 335 direct appointments of Indigenous Aboriginal people in the last five years.

There were 52 direct appointments in 2016, 45 in 2017, 58 in 2018, 48 in 2019 and 109 in 2020. Twenty-three were appointed in 2020 for 2021 until March 31.

Wawzonek pledged, in response to a request from Martselos, to bring concerns to cabinet to improve direct appointments and enhance transparency, and to make her own efforts to make its usage more transparent.

“Early on in the process of becoming a minister, this is a policy that I wanted to have reviewed to understand better. It is … a tool that can be utilized. It should be utilized towards the goal of being a representative work force, and if it's going to be a tool, then it should be better understood,” said Wawzonek.

Affirmative action regularly questioned

The effectiveness of the affirmative action policy has come under scrutiny by MLAs in the last five months.

In November, Wawzonek explained that even though Indigenous people make up about half of the NWT’s population, they have represented only 30 per cent of the GNWT’s workforce for the last few decades.  

That figure comprises 21 per cent Indigenous women and nine per cent Indigenous men.

“This is a complex issue that will not be solved by a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “Challenges to improved Indigenous representation exist at every stage of a public servant’s career path, including hiring, retention, promotion and succession planning.”

Also during that November session, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty said the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Northerners “stacks the deck” against Indigenous people seeking to work in the GNWT.

And Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said the interview process for GNWT jobs can be an impediment for Indigenous applicants because it’s not informed by Indigenous culture.

Indigenous men left out?

Then in February, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby pointed to data from the January Labour Force Report that showed a rising employment rate in the NWT, but questioned how much Indigenous people and particularly Indigenous men are part of the upswing.

She also referred to the same 30-percent figure Wawzonek mentioned in January.

Wawzonek then provided data for the period of January 2020 to January 2021 showing there were 239 affirmative action hires of Indigenous Aboriginal people, or 24.6 per cent of hires.

Women represented 67.9 per cent of affirmative action hires in that period.

The minister acknowledged that men aren’t a designated priority group in the affirmative action policy.

“They wouldn’t get an enhanced or additional focus in that regard,” she said.