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Critics deplore lack of sunshine list in NWT

Lack of detail on government employee compensation puts the onus on citizens to search for that information, says Andrew Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Politically inclined Yellowknifers searching online to find out which GNWT employees earned more than $100,000 in 2020 will seek in vain, as the territory is one of the few Canadian jurisdictions that don't publish sunshine lists.

Residents might be emboldened to learn about GNWT compensation rates after the publication on March 19 of Ontario's 2020 sunshine list showed a 23 per cent increase in names on the list compared to 2019, as CBC reported.

Pandemic-related pay, such as overtime hours is thought to have contributed to the increase.

Lack of detail on government employee compensation puts the onus on citizens to search for that information, says Andrew Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

The NWT joins its neighbouring territories, as well as Quebec and Prince Edward Island as the only jurisdictions that don't release complete sunshine lists.

However, Nunavut publishes a list of its MLAs' compensation rates.

All other provinces post their lists online, which include compensation amounts that exceed $100,000 per year and the names of those employees in sectors including government, health care, education and utilities.

General salary ranges

The closest the GNWT gets to a sunshine list is an online database of salary ranges for public service positions.

The site has been maintained since 2016, said Finance Department spokesperson Todd Sasaki.

The database doesn't include elected positions, such as MLAs or appointed positions like the chief public health officer.

Information on general compensation rates of MLAs can be found in the “pay and benefits” portal of the Legislative Assembly website, but it doesn't list names of specific MLAs.

For Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who is in favour of an NWT sunshine list, the current reporting system on public servant pay is needlessly vague.

“When reviewing the budget it's next to impossible to have a coherent picture of how much in overtime or bonuses is paid out. Presently adding such a list would require legislative amendment, I believe,” Johnson added.

“More needed in the GNWT is public reporting of bonuses paid to senior management which is a couple million dollars a year that comes from within departments.”

In a legislative assembly session in February 2020, Johnson criticized the allotments of bonuses as a system that lacks transparency because it isn't specifically budgeted. He urged Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek to commit to publicly disclose the amounts paid out for bonuses in 2019.

Wawzonek pledged to improve the transparency of the decision-making around bonuses.

Few details amid public sector growth

The Public Service Annual Reports gives a wider view of public sector pay, which has grown over the last few years as the number of GNWT employees increased from 5,091 in 2017-2018 to 5,788 in 2019-2020.

The reports list totals of all GNWT employee salaries and bonuses that compile data up to March 31 of each year.

In 2017-2018, the total came to just over $697 million; in 2018-2019 it was about $702.9 million; and in 2019-2020 it was around $773.8 million.

Disclosures risk 'invasion of privacy'

But details on individuals and their specific pay rates and bonuses are unavailable in public documentation, since their disclosure is confidential under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP), Sasaki said.

ATIPP states in section 23 (2) that disclosing third party information such as finances and income is regarded as an “unreasonable invasion” of personal privacy.

But the privacy issue doesn't hold water for some.

Transparency and accountability at stake

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) explained that privacy can become a “fig leaf for dodging accountability entirely.”

“It seems to me that having your salary published is a relatively small price to pay for having a salary that high (over $100,000), given that this is far above the average salary for most people, who are in many cases the ones paying for that salary.”

The organization has published research on sunshine lists across Canada, including its own list for Quebec, based on thousands of freedom of information requests. The list shows the compensation of government entities, but not individuals.

As Wudrick explained, the general principle behind the lists is that there should be a higher expectation of transparency when taxpayer money is involved, since taxes aren't optional for Canadians.

“Taxpayer money is engaged, and that triggers a right to transparency for the people doing the paying. A good analogy might be disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies versus privately held ones. Publicly traded ones can raise capital more easily - but the price of doing so is transparency.

“In the case of employees, people paid with taxpayer money in many cases earn more and have more stability/tenure than folks in the private sector - but the trade off is more transparency.”

Asked if the GNWT's various listings of public sector compensation will suffice, even if employee names aren't identified, Wudrick said that puts the onus on citizens to dig around for information.

“Some people don't even know where to start looking. If I wanted to know, say, how many professors at a university make above a certain amount, I could get a list of job titles, go search around their salary range chart, and ultimately figure it out. But why make it harder for people?”

Lack of data perpetuates pay gaps

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby also supports the introduction of an NWT sunshine list.

“I was shocked when I came into the GNWT and found out how much some people make,” she said. “Also shrouding people's compensation and pay in mystery allows for the pay gap for women and people of colour to be perpetuated. How can you fight for equal pay if you're unaware you're not being paid the same?”

She wasn't certain if pressing for an amendment to NWT legislation to enable a sunshine list is on her immediate agenda.

“I'm sure we'll be discussing it in our regular member committee and decide as a group.”