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UNW fights for fired dental therapists

Union’s support of disaffected hamlets puts pressure on the GNWT.

By JIM BELL

Union of Northern Workers officials say they’ll do everything they can to fight for four dental therapists who have been dumped from their jobs by the Keewatin Regional Health Board.

“The dental therapists are of concern to us and we think the decision made by the Keewatin Regional Health board was a bad decision for a number of reasons,” UNW’ public affairs officer Ben MacDonald said last week.

Under a deal worked out between the Keewatin board and a private company called Kiguti Dental Services, the Keewatin’s four dental therapists will be replaced July 1.

After that date, the work they used to do will be done by professional dentists employed by Kiguti.

That deal has enraged municipal leaders in Arviat, Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet. The Arviat, Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet hamlet councils have all said they want to run their own dental therapy programs separately from the health board.

Political pressure on the GNWT

MacDonald said that’s made it easier for the UNW to put extra political pressure on the GNWT over the issue.

“Some issues get legs of their own and that is part of what has happened here,” MacDonald said.

“We’ve been working with municipalities and elected MLAs and people like that trying to challenge the decision they made. We’ve filed a grievance on behalf of the dental therapists and we’re doing other research to see what else can be done to represent them.”

But MacDonald said it’s “just a coincidence” that the issue is centred in the consituency represented by John Todd ­ the GNWT cabinet minister whose job and wage cuts have earned the UNW’s ire.

“We put energy into representing laid off members everywhere,” MacDonald said. “First of all we tried to challenge the decision with the board. And then we’ve basically tried to turn it into a political issue by saying the board is not acting in the best interests of the region.”

MacDonald also said the Keewatin health board may have violated the collective agreement between the UNW and the GNWT.

“There’s a requirement in the collective agreement that they consult us before they do a privatization or contracting out with a resulting layoff, and we’ve already filed a grievance saying they didn’t do that.”

The four dental therapists who have lost their jobs are: Nathan Caskey, Arviat; James McLeod, Baker Lake; John Bowser, Rankin Inlet; and Stan Knight, Repulse Bay.

Aborginal health care flouted?

All are graduates of the National School of Dental Therapy, a program specifically set up to provide dental care for people living in remote aboriginal communities.

The National School of Dental Therapy is now run by the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, and is funded by Health Canada.

Performing a more limited range of services for less money than what is paid to regular dentists, dental therapists usually focus on doing preventive and educational work with children.

Last December, the dean of the National School of Dental Therapy, Steve Wolfson, criticized the Keewatin board’s decision.

Instead of dental therapists, the board says it will train Inuit for lower level jobs as “dental assistants.”

“I am convinced that a significant number of Inuit will be entering the dental therapy profession,” Wolfson said. “This will assure that people at a much higher level than dental assistant are providing Inuit input at a professional level for your program.”

Wolfson went on to say that dentists cost a lot more than dental therapists, and that “experience shows that there is a high rate of turnover for dentists in isolated northern communities.”

At the same time, the Keewatin divisional board of education has also said it’s opposed to the health board’s move, and that they want to run a dental therapy program themselves inside the Keewatin’s schools.

Two weeks ago, an obdurate Kelvin Ng, the NWT’s health minister, told Kivallivik MLA Kevin O’Brien that the believes the board has made a “sound” decision.

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