Assembly briefs: Oct. 23 – Two years on, Minister yet to enact new safety regulations

New legislation to improve workplace safety has been gathering dust on Minister Jackson Lafferty’s desk for two years, says Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro, and workers may be less safe as a result.

On Thursday, she demanded to know why the Minister Responsible for the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission hadn’t signed new occupational health and safety regulations given to him by the GNWT-appointed, WSCC-led, Safety Advisory Committee in January 2012.

Lafferty’s response: “With a large file such as these, we’re getting a lot of feedback from various parties, and we’re following up with those concerns and issues brought to our attention… we just want to make sure we cover all grounds.”

For Bisaro this wasn’t convincing. The committee worked on the regulations for years, hashing numerous drafts with almost 50 stakeholders, from mining companies to unions.

“There was huge consultation done prior to January 2012 … so I really don’t understand what the minister expects to learn from consulting again,” she said.

Our current occupational health and safety regulations are 22 years old and mute on a range of issues, from workplace harassment to mandatory health and safety representatives.

For Mary Lou Cherwaty, President of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour and a member of the advisory committee, the government’s inaction is making things less safe for workers.

She mentioned a recent case in Nunavut – which shares the legislation – where a worker was harassed for refusing to work in unsafe conditions; the chief safety officer deemed her claim legitimate, but it was overturned by the courts. Cherwaty thinks the judge would have ruled differently had the new legislation been in place.

“These regulations don’t go far enough but they’re leaps and bounds better than what we have. I really don’t know why they’re doing nothing. I wish I knew.”

Lafferty said he would sign the legislation before the end of the assembly, though he gave no timeline for it.

Little movement on Avens expansion

The population of seniors needing long-term care in Yellowknife is expected to triple in the next 10 to 15 years, and some MLAs are worried the government isn’t doing enough to deal with an infrastructure shortage.

The main issue is building a new care facility at the Avens Centre that would add 30 new long-term beds. Avens has approached the GNWT four times in the last year and a half with proposals to expand. According to Bisaro, “every time they put something forward the (health) department says, ‘well no we can’t do that.’”

Most recently they proposed taking out a mortgage to pay for the expansion, though they needed a guarantee from the GNWT that government would use the expanded facility.

“If we’ve got an organization that’s willing to take on a mortgage, that’s willing to build us a 60-bed facility, I’m struggling to understand why we are not bending over backwards to find a way to accommodate them,” said Bisaro during a debate in the house.

“We’re absolutely willing to work with them,” said Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy. “But the changing nature of these proposals has made it difficult for us at health and social services to respond.”

He said his department has given Avens $25,000 to partake in a newly established steering committee that’s drafting a plan.

“We need to get the plan done to get it into the capital process, recognizing that it could take a couple of years to advance to a point where it’s an approved project,” he said.

Facing criticism from several MLAs, Abernethy defended his department’s work, citing “upwards of $86 million” spent on the dementia care facility in the Avens complex, 18 new beds in Norman Wells and eight new beds in Behchoko.

Still, for Range Lake MLA Darryl Dolynny, the plan to fix the problem with a steering committee isn’t good enough.

“This organization is merely looking for a memorandum of support so they can secure their funding, and I believe this is not a complex task,” he said. “I fear we’re continuously supplying roadblocks.”

Junior kindergarten under fire … again

The ever-controversial junior kindergarten program that started in 23 NWT communities this school year drew serious heat from a number of MLAs during yesterday’s question period.

The most impassioned criticism came from Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen, who said the program would undermine existing early childhood programs and do more harm than good in many communities.

“This is a perfect example of the of the government delivering an initiative it thinks is good in a wide broadcast area without thinking and rationalization and figuring out what the ripple effect is,” she said.

She argued the GNWT would be better off focusing its efforts in communities that don’t already have early childhood education. In larger centres like Hay River or Yellowknife, junior kindergarten would take kids away from programs like Aboriginal Headstart or French Preschool, she said.

“It is optional for a parent to take on this program if they wish,” responded Education Minister Jackson Lafferty. “And not every parent can afford early learning… The other successful programs, we are not gutting them, we’re working with them.”

“It’s optional for people to uptake, but not optional for the (District Education Authority) to implement it,” said Groenewegen. “At our DEA meeting we talk about laying down on the road, and I think we may have to do that on this one.”

For Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins, the issue was how daycares will be able to function once a third of their children, thus income, is taken away by junior kindergarten.

“He’s going to single handedly collapse the daycare system in every community,” said Hawkins.

Lafferty replied that his department has changed regulations giving daycares more flexibility, though what this meant was unclear. “If there’s any ripple effects, my department will deal with it,” he added.

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