Now, during the lockdown when almost half of the government employees are still working from home, it might be a good time for us to ask if the size of the civil service in the NWT is too top heavy. I was stunned to learn that the GNWT has almost 5,300 employees in a territory with only 43,000 residents, many who live in outlying communities with little contact with the central hub. It makes one wonder if we are developing industry to support social services in the territories or to support the government itself. It is a great time to see which of these positions can be farmed out to the private sector.
The thought came to mind with the recent stories of people in the private sector struggling to get by. Indeed, for some, it is life or death. In particular was the story about the young father pictured with his two children saying he had zero income last month; and we all know of business owners who have talked about their struggles when they had to shut their doors for so long.
To be clear, I have socialist leanings but my heart has gone out to entrepreneurs who tried to follow their dreams and start businesses only to be hit hard by a pandemic.
Unlike civil servants, they had little to no secure incomes during the lockdown. I have talked to business operators who say sales were down 90 per cent in April. That they survived at all is a miracle. Further, to say that they received loans from the federal government are forgetting that they ARE loans. Once the economy rebounds, if it does, they will have to pay those back. And even now, with things starting to open up, most of the businesses can only allow a limited number of customers into their stores under the chief public health officers’ regulations. I can only imagine the stress some operators are under. I sincerely hope people are shopping locally and not buying online.
Last week, and again today while attempting to gather information for this column, I ran into brick walls while trying to gather information from someone with the GNWT. I listened to the COVID blurb we are all accustomed to explaining that because of the pandemic, government employees are working from home although they will be picking up messages regularly. While most of the responses do come within a couple days, other calls are lost in cyberspace.
All of this brings into question the huge disconnect between the private sector who have worked hard to stay afloat for so long, and government workers had government pay cheques and security. There is no excuse for a lack of empathy and support while coming from places that feel less threatened by external conditions. I am sure it has been tough staying home too and that the isolation has been difficult. But staying at home, in isolation and watching your businesses go down the tubes or struggling to stay open and provide services while losing money must be a nightmare.
Fifty years ago, there were only a handful of government workers in the NWT.
Most of the people who lived here were hardworking individualists wanting a lifestyle different from the mainstream in the south. They got by on elbow grease, rugged determination and individualism that could not be found further south.
Now one of the aspirations of many coming north is to get a job in the civil service with its security and benefits. And then, because their employer is the government, if they see something they disagree with, they do not speak up for fear of losing their positions and retirement benefits. While understandable, it is a thorn in the side of many in the private sector.
There are some great and essential civil servants out there – don’t get me wrong – and we could not survive without them; those in the health profession, teaching, human rights commission and ENR. But how many are not essential? How many could be providing services from the private sector and be – working to support the government instead of the government working to support us? That there is such a disconnect between the private and public sector could contribute to the lack of empathy toward the struggles faced by the private sector by some segments of the government.
I think now, when so many are still working at home, it might be a good time to evaluate the path the North is on because the bubble, as it continues to grow, will burst. It has to. The civil service cannot sustain this kind of growth. Nor should it.