Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Report finds Indigenous N.W.T. employees largely working entry level jobs

December 5, 2022
If the territorial government wants to have better Indigenous representation in its public service, it needs to focus on fixing the “lackadaisical” education system in smaller communities, says Bonnetrouge. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

CBC News: Recently released data from the N.W.T government indicates that Indigenous employees in the public service are still largely confined to entry-level positions.

On Nov. 15, the territory released Indigenous Employment Plans for each of its 11 departments and 13 agencies to the public. The plans are part of its ongoing push to boost the recruitment and retention of Indigenous employees. 

Each plan includes a department-specific breakdown of Indigenous employee ratios by job classification. They also lay out hiring targets for the next two years, four years, and six years, and strategies to increase those targets by rooting out racism and bias in staffing processes.

Looking at the data, it’s clear that there’s less and less Indigenous representation the further up the public service employment ladder you go. So, what gives?

Deh Cho MLA Ronald Bonnetrouge, for one, thinks the territory’s education system is to blame.

“There’s barriers for our people moving up,” he said. “We’re going to get stuck because we don’t have university or college, or public administration [experience]. And many of our people can’t get in there because of the poor quality of education to begin with.”

‘Lackadaisical’ education a big problem in smaller communities, says Deh Cho MLA

The new numbers seem to back Bonnetrouge’s claims. 

Take the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, the biggest employer in the territorial government, as an example. As of March 2022, of its 1,434 employees 297 identified as Indigenous — around 15 per cent. The authority has set targets to expand overall representation by 25 per cent in two years, and 39 per cent in six years.

Break the numbers down further by job classification, and the gap grows.

About 38.5 per cent of those Indigenous employees are working in positions requiring high school equivalencies or less. That’s compared to 20 per cent occupying positions requiring a college or trade equivalency, and 11.6 per cent in positions requiring a university equivalency. Meanwhile, Indigenous employees hold only 8.8 per cent of middle management positions, and 9.1 per cent of senior management positions. 

This trend is replicated across nearly every department of the N.W.T. government, with some exceptions. 

Speaking with CBC News on Friday, Bonnetrouge said these discrepancies are evidence of the territory’s “lackadaisical” education system. “I’m not afraid to call it that,” he said. 

Bonnetrouge — who lives in Fort Providence — said youth from his community often have to travel south for upgrading before they can even attend college or university. He said that the curriculum used is “very limited” and hinders kids from following specialized career paths, such as science or math. 

He says the territorial government is not doing enough to address the problem.

“They’re trying to just wash it aside, saying everything is hunky-dory, our education is world class,” Bonnetrouge said. “And I’m scratching my head saying, ‘Well, what is world class in our education system?’

“This is what our leaders have said in the past: we want good education for our children, for them to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, teachers and such. That speaks volumes about what we expect of  the education system in our small communities.”

Education Minister R.J. Simpson was not immediately available for comment, but the shortcomings of education in the territory have been well-documented over the years.

A report prepared by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment in early 2022 shows that in the 2020-21 school year, 45 per cent of students in smaller communities graduated high school on time (within six years), while 74 per cent of students in Yellowknife graduated on-time. 

Likewise, only 49 per cent of Indigenous students that year graduated on-time, compared to 81 per cent of non-Indigenous students. 

Danny Gaudet pictured here in 2018. Gaudet is the chief of the Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę Government. Gaudet said he was well-supported back when he used to work for the N.W.T. government, but he feels as though the same supports are no longer offered. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)
On-the-job training, summer student opportunities possible solutions

Bonnetrouge is also not the first person to connect the N.W.T. education system with a lack of Indigenous representation in the public service. Chief Danny Gaudet of Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę Government made similar comments during a meeting of the territory’s standing committee on government operations last month. 

“We really need to have a real serious conversation about education, because I think in the end, if you work for the public sector, a big chunk of it is you have to have an education,” Gaudet said at the time, adding that education in his community was “weak.”

Gaudet also said he was well-supported back when he used to work for the N.W.T. government. He said there were “a lot” of programs to train people on the job, including helping people get into courses to get their diplomas, certificates or even degrees to be qualified for various government jobs. 

“I don’t think you support [employees] like you used to,” he told the government committee.

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, chairs that committee. He agrees with Bonnetrouge and Gaudet that education is “no doubt the larger systemic barrier” facing Indigenous candidates.

“We need to be graduating more high school graduates and more post-secondary graduates in order to make up that labour force, and I think, as with many of our social issues, education is the key solution,” he said.

Rylund Johnson is the chair of the standing committee on government operations. He agreed with Gaudet and Bonnetrouge that education is “no doubt the larger systemic barrier” facing Indigenous candidates. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Johnson said the committee has spent the last several months travelling to communities and holding public hearings about ways to increase Indigenous representation in the public service. 

In terms of more immediate solutions, he said many communities demanded more flexibility around hiring requirements for certain jobs with the appropriate on-the-job training to back it up, and expanding its summer student program within smaller communities. 

“A lot of the programs existed in the GNWT, the mentorship and management training programs for Indigenous employees, but they just weren’t being utilized and they weren’t really being promoted,” Johnson said. 

“So that I think is starting to change, and a pretty clear direction has been given to make sure all of those programs are being fully taken advantage of and being promoted to all Indigenous employees.”