Health and Social Services — the GN’s failed department


I shake my head at the way the Department of Health and Social Services continues to flounder, serving no one in particular and constantly blowing every conceivable opportunity to connect with the people it is supposed to be serving.

Watching this sorry sight since 1999, I recall being aghast at the way so many people were recruited from all over the South to fill key health positions.

These people usually made the same mistakes over and over again, thinking they were hired for what they had previously put in place, so they proceeded to do what they knew, even though it would never fit. Whenever that became apparent through embarrassing blunders and outcries from the public, they simply scratched their heads for a moment and did more of the same.

Everyone seemed to take their cue from another province, another initiative elsewhere, and measured and filtered everything from somewhere else.

In witnessing this, I knew that kind of thinking and planning was doomed.

I was distraught, watching all these people from elsewhere occupying all the most prestigious and influential positions in the department. No northerners, who could inject some insight and feeling for the people, were allowed a place where they could speak to the needs, hopes and aspirations of the people, or bring forward the recommendations emerging from the consultation processes carried out by the Interim Commissioner’s Nunavut-wide consultation mandate.

They seemed buried and uninteresting to these newcomers, who were so sure of themselves they didn’t miss a beat in applying only what they knew.

Being out of tune and out of sync with northerners, earning good wages, being in superior health compared to the masses, never having any direct experience with most of the challenges northern people face, they were sadly lacking in comprehension and empathy for the daily suffering all around them.

Suicide you say? Youth blowing themselves away? No, that had never touched their lives, so it was no big priority and there was no urgency for them to do something about it.

Family violence? No not in their homes, so no significant efforts were ever made in that area.

Poverty? Of course not, don’t be silly.

Illiteracy? Not in their families, so no understanding of the humiliating conditions under which people up here toiled.

Homelessness? Hard to understand — much less feel for when no one in your very isolated social circle ever experienced anything like that.

Alcoholism and drug addiction? No, these high-functioning people who hardly ever had nasty challenges to face mixed in with miles of grief, trauma and marginalization couldn’t even begin to figure that one out. It just never happened to them.

Lulled by big dollars, staff housing, good benefits and lots of southern colleagues all around them, it seemed impossible for them to break out of their bubbles and notice how much was upside down around here.

Did anyone do cross-cultural training or language training with them? Were they monitored on how they interacted and included northerners who worked at much lower levels within the department?

Did anyone, such as the many deputy ministers and ADMs who have run through this department like freight trains, ever stop long enough to wonder why they and their thinking never fit and how they were quickly tagged by the people as insensitive, out-of-touch, cold-hearted rule-worshipers with no ethics, no heart and no people skills?

And who in senior echelons ever noticed or ever chose to do anything about it as it very quickly became the GN’s Titanic, taking up so much of the budget, yet sinking like a stone?

Who at the top never bothered to listen to the legitimate concerns of the ordinary MLAs who also questioned this department’s outputs, attitudes, staffing mix, level of competence, and actions in many Legislative Assembly sessions?

These MLAs who raised these worries, quite correctly, only received smarmy and horribly contrived answers from a minister of health who always lacked any real deep insight into health issues, and relied way too heavily on the same bureaucrats who were being complained about, even responding to MLAs about them with briefing notes and comments penned by these same people defending themselves.

And the rest of the cabinet — were they asleep for two terms?

It is incredible that we can see failures on this massive a scale ongoing since 1999 — seven years! If this were anywhere else in Canada, the health ministry would have been put out of business, everyone thrown out of it and new folks brought in to clean up the mess.

* Get Northerners into top positions where they can articulate what Nunavummiut want, need and expect, and shape it into that.
* Clear out deadwood and even more moribund thinking.
* Let loose on the creativity, including real IQ, not the pathetic snowmobile afternoons, berry-picking, fishing and picnics that currently pass for traditional knowledge.
* People the place with elders in groups, not alone, so they can have the strength of numbers in their advice.
* Listen, listen, listen all around you.
* Be brave enough to bring in people to do an autopsy on where you went wrong so it can never happen like this again and go on so very long.
* Dig up the Nunavut wide consultation material from 1997-98 where the people had their input and see what you were supposed to be building and build it.
* Attract some of those northerners back in to the department who left, in disbelief, from a system they could not even recognize anymore. It is they who should be put in charge and all the educated southerners should be taking their direction from them.
* Stop letting bureaucrats compare and worship what health systems are doing everywhere else in the country and leave that fixation behind so they can shake their brains free of information overload and empty it out to be able to replace it with adaptiveness, flexibility, openness, leading-edge thinking, sensitivity and awareness.
* Apologize to the people for getting so far away from them and so far off the path of giving them what they needed and from refusing to listen to their input.
* Do it fast, do it now and drop all other initiatives that would take your time and attention away from it.

People are dying. They are sick, afraid, in trauma, grief, violence, addiction and they are losing hope. This department was a major contributor to this situation by what it didn’t do well or didn’t do at all.

It must rise up, out of the ashes — as it constantly set itself on fire — with its long history of bad decisions, haughtiness, exclusion, isolation and bureaucracy. It must take the lead now in clearing the debris and fast-tracking transparent, innovative consultative and empathetic processes for getting in touch with the people whose mandate it is to serve and giving them what they always deserved.

Nunavut’s new government was supposed to be different, closer to the people, caring, user-friendly, more knowledgeable, less autocratic and distant, more responsive, inclusive and creative. Let’s live up to the peoples’ mandate.

(Name withheld by request)

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