December 10, 2023

‘We can’t just treat it like a checked box,’ health minister says of plan to improve working conditions

This is Part 3 of a three-part series about the work environment in Nunavut’s health centres. Here are links to Part 1  and Part 2.

Ten years ago, Gwen Slade tried to report a toxic work environment at Kinngait’s health centre, only to see the Health Department turn on her.

She says it’s “evil” that nurses say the same thing is still happening today.

Slade’s experience in Kinngait is well documented. She’s one of the nurses who tried to sound the alarm that the community’s health centre was being run in a dysfunctional, dangerous manner.

In 2013, it came to light that an infant had died in April 2012 after being refused care at the centre. That infant’s death led to an external review, two years later in 2015, that laid bare a “culture of fear” among the Government of Nunavut’s ranks.

“This fearfulness was amplified by the facts surrounding the treatment of Gwen Slade, which was seen as punitive in nature,” the review said.

Slade filed formal harassment complaints and reported her colleagues to the Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in January 2012. These reports led to a subsequent complaint against Slade in response, and she was suspended.

“The credibility of Ms. Slade was treated as suspect from the outset,” the 2015 review says.

The complaint against Slade was eventually investigated and dismissed, after she’d left Kinngait in February 2012.

Calls for better conditions

There are 47 recommendations for the GN in the external review, including 17 that pertain specifically to human resource management.

They include a call for annual performance appraisals, as well as clear communication about employee expectations; appropriate respite time; better mentoring and continuing education practices, including peer-to-peer mentoring; the establishment of manageable workloads; and information and resources to help GN employees recognize bullying and harassment.

Nunatsiaq News has spoken to several nurses over the past six months who report a culture of fear persists at Nunavut’s health centres, that they’re suffering under the weight of their workloads, and that GN management does not support them or provide adequate training. In fact, they said they are reprimanded when they ask for help.

Nunatsiaq News has asked the Department of Health for an update on its implementation of the recommendations stemming from the 2015 review, but has not received an answer.

Health Minister John Main indicated in a recent interview he could not say how many of those recommendations are complete.

Instead, he highlighted a more recent strategy to boost nurse retention in Nunavut: The 2021 Roadmap to Strengthen Nunavut’s Nursing Workforce, which is in the process of implementation.

Its key points overlap with the 2015 external review, with a focus on regular performance reviews, mentoring and education, a manageable work-life balance and providing resources and coaching to improve “interpersonal collaboration.”

“We can’t just treat it like a checked box,” Main said of the department’s work to recruit nurses to Nunavut and make them want to stay.

“Our human-resources and workplace environment piece should be a fundamental priority item from here until forever.”

While the roadmap clearly promotes healthy workplace environments, it does not directly acknowledge workplace harassment or bullying.

Use ‘processes in place’ to flag concerns, says health minister

Nunatsiaq News shared with Main a list of ideas the newspaper heard from nurses about how they believe health centres could be transformed into healthier workplaces.

Those ideas include a whistleblower policy, an external review of the Department of Health’s management team and better training for health centre staff to recognize what psychological harassment looks like.

Main said the department is open to feedback and suggestions and pointed out the government’s 2021 roadmap was created with the help of consultation from nurses.

Gwen Slade is a former Nunavut nurse who worked in Kinngait 10 years ago. She tried to report harassment and other dysfunction at her health centre, to no avail. She later became one of the prominent voices urging an investigation into the death of a baby who died in the community in 2012. (Facebook photo)

He stressed that in his travels to health centres across the territory, he met with teams that appear to be working very well and said he has heard from Nunavummiut who have positive feedback to share about great nurses who are integrating themselves into their communities.

Main encouraged the nurses who told their stories to Nunatsiaq News to use the “processes in place” to flag their concerns.

As for Gwen Slade, she’s retired now, still surrounded by boxes and boxes of papers in her Ontario home that document the stand she took against the GN, papers she’s considered burning.

“Did I win this battle?” she asks, reflecting on her time in Kinngait.

“The bottom line is I still have to live with me and I don’t want to stand in front of my maker and have to explain to Him why I didn’t try to help a child.”

She urges any nurses who might be struggling in Nunavut to band together with others who feel the same way.

“Safety in numbers,” she said.

“People will do what people do for one reason only — because they can… The only thing that will make a government change is if they are afraid. If they feel their power is under threat, they are going to change.”


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