City, union officials lambaste Government of Nunavut for blizzard decision
“When we make the call that the roads are unsafe, everyone should stand by that decision”
“Cavalier” – that’s the word that Iqaluit mayor John Graham used to describe a March 12 decision by the Government of Nunavut to keep their offices open as city crews struggled to clean up snow-clogged streets after an overnight blizzard.
“When we make the call that the roads are unsafe, everyone should stand by that decision,” Graham said.
“I thought that was all that needed to be done.”
But the GN decided to open its Iqaluit offices March 12, despite an advisory from the city asking people and vehicles to stay off the roads.
“Weather conditions have improved, but please stay off the roads if you can this morning to give crews the time and space they need to make our roads safe,” the city said.
Graham had been riding around with the city crews off and on since 2 a.m. on March 12, when they returned back to work after a 12-hour break due to the blizzard.
Graham said he was “shocked” when he learned the GN wanted its workers to show up for work.
In the early morning, obstacles to traffic included a phone and power line hanging across a street in Lower Base, four-foot drifts on the Federal Road going towards the industrial park, and drifts and vehicles blocking the bridge leading to Apex.
Nearly 20 vehicles had been abandoned as the blizzard suddenly picked up steam during the afternoon and evening of March 11 when winds reached 90 kilometres an hour or more.
For people not living in the centre of Iqaluit, it would have been dangerous to attempt to drive into work on the morning of March 12, sometimes over a distance of several kilometres.
“Iqaluit is not the town of Frobisher Bay it was 30 years ago,” Graham said.
The GN had decided to send home workers at about 2 p.m. on March 11, and the legislature adjourned its daily sitting, after the City of Iqaluit decided to pull out its municipal crews from the roads.
How bad was the storm? You just have to ask members of the RCMP who were out and about.
Visibility was “terrible,” RCMP Cst. Stephan Kilabuk said.
Some drifts on the streets were as tall as five to six feet, with several vehicles stuck in the drifts.
“Fortunately, the people that we encountered were not injured, nor did they require any medical attention,” he said.
But during the night, RCMP trucks were getting stuck in the snow drifts.
“We managed to tow them out using our other vehicles, but at one point we had to make the decision to use our snowmobiles exclusively,” Kilabuk said.
Kilabuk used a qamutik sled attached to his snowmobile to escort a family of three adults, two children and an infant, who were stuck on the bridge leading to the Frobisher Inn building.
“The people were not dressed for the conditions, but I had some extra cold weather gear for them to put on so that I could get them safely to the Frobisher Inn,” Kilabuk said.
On the early morning of March 12 Iqaluit schools, daycares, federal government offices, other offices and the airport remained closed.
But the GN was open and workers who didn’t show up were faced with giving up a day of their special leave or holiday.
That outraged Caroline Anawak, the president of Local 5 of the Nunavut Employees Union, who said a blizzard, basically “an act of God,” shouldn’t mean workers have to give up days reserved for family emergencies, events or annual leave.
Anawak, a GN employee, had watched many of her co-workers wrestle with leaving work early on March 11 when daycares and schools closed before the GN shut down.
There’s a human rights issue as well at stake in this kind of situation, Anawak said, “the right to be safe and the right to keep your children safe.”
Anawak said she’d already asked the NEU to complain about the policy in their meetings with the GN’s Human Resources Dept. after a similar situation during a blizzard this past January.
The GN “bad weather” policy, which applies to all employees, says that “people living in Arctic conditions can expect to work or come to work in bad weather conditions.”
It says “employees have a duty to report for work on all scheduled work days except when government offices have been officially closed or when the employee is unable to report to work due to impassable road conditions or the absence of public transportation or any other acceptable reason caused by bad weather.”
It says “consideration will be given to closing government offices in any community if a combination of any three of the following occur in a normal workday:”
• visibility is less than 200 meters;
• the constant wind speed exceeds 60 miles per hour;
• there is a wind chill index of –50 C or greater;
• the municipality has taken its road clearing machinery off the road; and,
• taxis or other transportation systems have given one-hour notice of going off the road.
A GN information sheet for community contacts says “the decision to close GN offices due to bad weather can be a difficult one.” And that community contacts must be “prepared for criticism.”
In a March 12 meeting with GN’s human resources department, NEU president Doug Workman said the department stood by its decision to remain open.
That’s because the conditions March 12 in the morning didn’t meet three of its “considerations” for closing.
Workman said the union is now considering circulating a petition asking the GN to change its policy.
Graham said he planned to meet March 13 with Ed Zebedee, Nunavut’s director of protection services.
His message: because the City of Iqaluit maintains the roads, when it decides conditions are dangerous and people should stay at home, that’s what they should do.