How about an ice-fishing week? Policy maker rethinks northern workplaces

Patricia Johnson-Castle says changes like schedule flexibility could help Inuit thrive in public sector

Patricia Johnson-Castle, a recipient of the Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship, spent two years researching the ways traditional Inuit knowledge and values can be incorporated in contemporary workplaces to foster healthy working environments. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

When Patricia Johnson-Castle began working for the Nunatsiavut government in 2019, it was an exciting but intimidating experience.

She had two post-secondary degrees under her belt by the time she reached her mid-twenties, and was a first-time manager who had been named director of policy and planning at the government’s Nain office.

Suddenly, she was tasked with supervising an older male colleague and adjusting to a tightly structured work environment.

While it was exciting for the St. John’s native to work in a place where being Inuit was the norm, being a young Inuk woman in a leadership role sometimes presented its own challenges.

“I felt both very at home and also out of place at the same time,” Johnson-Castle said.

So when the pandemic forced her office to adopt a work-from-home setup, Johnson-Castle, 28, started reimagining what workspaces could look like if they better incorporated Inuit traditional knowledge and values, or “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit,” particularly from the perspective of Inuit women.

That’s what inspired her two-year project titled “Sivumulâvugut: (Re)Making Inuit Workplaces.”

It’s one of the research papers published this month through the Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship, a policy and leadership development program for young northern Canadians seeking to address challenges in the North.

In it, she examines how colonialism impacts the way Inuit are represented in modern workplaces and offers recommendations for creating a healthy workplace in the context of their culture.

“If we think about the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek, that was a labour victory from 100 years ago,” Johnson-Castle said.

“I think that if we do a better job at grounding Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit we’re going to create a more humane workplace that is going to be better for everyone.”

Fostering a humane workplace is particularly important for Inuit women. Johnson-Castle said they often face complex challenges due to their intersecting identities as women and as Inuit.

For her research, she interviewed 13 Inuit women from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat who manage other staff.

All but one said they had experienced sexism and racism in the workplace.

“That gave me a lot of comfort and a lot of disappointment,” Johnson-Castle said.

“In that I wasn’t alone in the experiences that I was having, but also that it’s disappointing that even women in our own organizations are still experiencing a combination of racism, sexism and ageism.”

One respondent she quotes in her paper said the culturally specific way Inuit would normally seek advice from community elders has become muddled in the contemporary workplace, turning into an expectation that young people should listen to everyone who is older than them.

That can be challenging to navigate for young women in leadership positions, something Johnson-Castle said she has experienced first-hand.

Earlier this month, Johnson-Castle presented her work to officials in Ottawa, including Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami policy staff and other government officials and policymakers.

She hopes to soon present her work in Iqaluit.

“The recommendations that I make in the end are that we should have flexibility in the way that people are employed,” Johnson-Castle said.

That includes being allowed to work from home, and working flexible hours and fewer hours ­— changes that could positively impact women especially — while also considering what an “Inuit calendar” could look like.

“Easter moves every year, because of the mishmash of calendars … but no one gets up in arms really about the fact that it moves,” she said.

“So why not have an ice fishing break? When it’s a good week for ice fishing, just let everyone take the week off. Why don’t we have more holidays that are culturally relevant to us?”

Johnson-Castle said some of her recommendations might seem “obvious,” but that means they can be easily implemented by workplaces if the motivation is there.

“There is such a push and pull between the traditional economy and the western way that public service is set up, so if we set everything up in a way that is rooted in our societal values we’re going to be more likely to tap into more talent,” she said.

“And continue to be self-sufficient as our ancestors have been for time immemorial.”

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(16) Comments:

  1. Posted by John K on

    I’m all for more holidays but “When it’s a good week for ice fishing, just let everyone take the week off” is a bit much.

    I admire your confidence in your fellow man but implement that policy and watch the definition of “a good week for ice fishing” evolve as people need it to.

    What she is describing already happens anyway. I have multiple coworkers who miss up to a week a month without being held accountable. This idea would simply enshrine in law the fact that I constantly have to pick up slack.

  2. Posted by Nattering Nabob on

    The spectacle of cliché in this piece is nearly unbearable. How does one cope with the fallout of so many “isms” –racism, colonialism, ageism, sexism… (surely there are more?). Let’s bundle this up properly and call it what it really is, Manicheanism—the struggle between good and evil.

    And then there is the conjuring of our favorite amulet, IQ—that magical lance piercing almost anything we place before it.

    Though I did not quite ‘puke a little’ I wish I had.

    Let’s zoom out for a minute. The impacts of the modern work schedule, an evolutionary leap in their time as pointed out, permeate all western culture. To say these are the impacts of colonialism on Inuit in the workplace is a strange—let’s call it parochial—way to frame a larger problem.

    Rethinking how and when we work has been happening across the ‘affluent [westernized] world’ for some time; see the Nordic countries. Adaptations to covid may finally have forced this into popular consciousness. That is a good thing, with the potential to bring health benefits and even (probably) more efficient work. It has the potential at least to be a ‘win-win’ in the long run, if done right.

  3. Posted by 867 on

    Good old virtue signalling. The GN already offers more vacation time and unjustified sick leave than any other workplace in Canada. Government workers have more than enough time to Ice Fish.

    • Posted by INUK FROM NUNAVIK on

      Work week starts monday till friday afternoon , you have the weekend to go fishing

  4. Posted by 2 graduate degrees on

    “Patricia Johnson-Castle says changes like schedule flexibility could help Inuit thrive in public sector”. Be honest many who are employed in the Public Sector in the north are unemployable in southern canada. Hiring people with no interview, no credentials and no work ethic is a recipe for failure, regardless of how many “Ice Fishing Holidays” are given. Inuit who thrive in the Public Sector are the ones who care about their education and career. Dont need your fancy degree’s to figure that one out.

    • Posted by Gross on

      The nastiness in this comment is really not necessary.

  5. Posted by 867983 on

    She has a good point.

    I’d also like to add that there is so much hate and resentment inside Inuit Nunangat. Be prepared to receive negative comments, it is expected.

    • Posted by it’s ok on

      Her points aren’t that bad, but they aren’t that original either. To think it took two years to come up with this research is a sad statement.

  6. Posted by common sense on

    In a perfect world on paper this is all well and good. But our collective reality tells us our mortgage is due on a certain date the bills have to be paid. If you live on the land you cant take a week off. You would starve. no different in the white mans world.
    Not ideal by any means but it is our reality.

    • Posted by Inuk on

      Should we not be aiming to make the world more perfect?

  7. Posted by William on

    Why not offer more part time work. With: full benefits to locals. Monday tuesday one week. Wed thur Friday the next week. That way two people get jobs. It’s not a relentless 5 day a week stressor. Would work well in health centers. HR. Maybe all jobs??

    • Posted by Just some probs on

      Lack of continuity, either party avoiding or not accepting full responsibility (blaming the other), always competing and becoming frustrated with each other. I don’t see this working.

  8. Posted by Ned Flanders on

    Thank you…
    One of the funniest articles I’ve read in a while. Mahsi Johnson -Castle
    The Fed’s may still be rolling around on the floor laughing.

    • Posted by Inuk on

      The feds already allow ppl to work remotely from home. I know ppl working for the feds but living in St John’s, Toronto, etc even if their jobs are “in” Ottawa. Dunno why the feds would be laughing when they’ve already do things suggested here.

  9. Posted by Umingmak on

    I feel like it’s really condescending to act like Inuit need special, exclusive, extra days off work just to succeed in the workplace. Inuit are every bit as capable of success in the workplace as any other race. It’s garbage like this that makes people focus on negative stereotypes instead of recognizing the successes of many Inuit.

  10. Posted by Monica A. Connolly on

    50 years ago, when I worked in Nunavut, There were situations where working conditions were altered to meet the goals of the employer and employee.
    I saw one community where two workers knew how to run the hamlet’s power generator. Both these men were hunters, so if one went out, the outage alarm went to the other’s home; the men got to hunt, but the power system was always monitored.
    I knew single parents who always put home concerns first, but took critical work home to do there.
    I knew another young man who had a short-term assignment helping a GNWT tradesman; he had a chance to go hunting, so he contacted another person with similar qualifications who had worked with the tradesman before.
    You just need to think outside the box.

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