MLAs slam plan to reduce Inuit hiring quota for new jail construction

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A firestorm blew through the legislative assembly as the government faced the fury of MLAs concerned about the prospect of lowering Inuit employment ratios in the construction of Iqaluit’s new correctional centre.

MLAs expressed outrage in the legislative assembly on Nov. 6 when it was revealed that the GN is considering reducing the Inuit employment quota for construction of the new correctional centre from 20 per cent to 15 per cent. Pictured is the existing Baffin Correctional Centre, which has been branded as inadequate in various ways in a number of reports. NNSL file photo

The Government of Nunavut is bargaining with an Inuit-owned construction company to construct the new correctional centre in Iqaluit and one of the points of negotiation is dropping the Inuit employment component to 15 per cent from 20 per cent.

MLAs voiced their anger in the legislative assembly on Nov. 6.

“I think this is a really sad situation. I think it’s ridiculous,” said Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main, one of several MLAs who was opposed to lowering the Inuit hiring quota. “We’re imprisoning largely Inuit into a jail or a correctional facility for societal reasons, which include high unemployment. It seems to be like a ridiculous catch-22 situation that we’re stuck in here.”

The GN sought contractors to build the Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre earlier this year but only one responded: Hall Beach-based Pilitak Enterprises with a bid of $76.5 million, well above the $63 million budget the GN had set for base construction costs. That resulted in a cancelled tender and delayed the start of construction this past summer. The GN has since been in direct negotiations with Pilitak Enterprises in an effort to trim construction costs to $73 million, according to Justice Minister Jeannie Ehaloak.

Among the cost-cutting measures discussed would be using cheaper materials in some areas and scaling back the number of Inuit employees because there aren’t many qualified workers available in the capital city, and the cost of providing housing for Inuit flown in from other Nunavut communities is expensive, explained William MacKay, deputy minister of Justice.

Main didn’t accept that reasoning. He said southern workers are provided a temporary place to live while on the job and it should be no different for Inuit from outside Iqaluit.

“We just heard there would be no accommodation. They are being treated differently and that’s not good,” Main said.

Some MLAs also inquired about the possibility of using inmate labour to assist in building the new facility while providing trades training to the prisoners at the same time.

“This is more of an idea that’s sort of at the beginning stages. As far as we know, there hasn’t been any correctional facility that has been built with the assistance or while using inmates and using it as an opportunity to train inmates in certain trades,” MacKay said. “This is new ground or new territory that we’re undertaking, a new ground we’re breaking in this regard, so we don’t have a lot of the details worked out. We still haven’t finalized a contract. That’s something that the company will propose something on, but we don’t know a lot of the details on that. It’s sort of an idea at this stage.”

Justice Minister Jeannie Ehaloak said the government has been in direct negotiations with Pilitak Enterprises of Hall Beach to build the new correctional centre in Iqaluit. photo courtesy of the GN

The total cost for the new correctional centre – including expenses outside of construction – is expected to come in at $84.8 million, with the federal government providing $57 million.

Ehaloak said construction is now expected to start in 2019-2020 and be complete in 2023-24. The new jail should be in use for around 50 years, she added.

To close the discussion, Ehaloak made it clear that she comprehended the criticism levelled in the assembly on Nov. 6.

“I just want to comment to the members that today the Inuit employment discussion was a great debate and I thank you for that,” she said. “Nunavummiut should be aware that not only the government but … all companies within Nunavut that work in Nunavut should look at Inuit employment as a priority when they bid on contracts and stuff.”