New recruitment, retention strategy for Nunavut nurses close to release

“It’s a big burden. We recognize that there are nursing shortages across the territory”

The arrival of a second mental health nurse in Baker Lake means that the reduction in services has ended. But Nunavut continues to grapple with a shortage of nurses. (File photo)

By Jane George

The Nunavut government plans to soon release a new recruitment and retention strategy for nurses, its first since 2008.

The hope is that this new package of incentives will help remedy the chronic shortage of nurses in Nunavut, said Jennifer Berry, the Government of Nunavut’s chief nursing officer.

The 2008 plan, still in place until its replacement is approved, includes a system of “special allowances,” bonus payments and monthly payments for continuous service for the territory’s nearly 300 nurses.

But it excludes teaching nurses, administrators and non-nursing health professionals. The plan also didn’t directly address three big issues for nurses: staff housing rents, the cost of living, and wage levels.

The new plan is different, Berry said in a recent interview.

“We wanted to go beyond just the financial bonuses in place to ‘what are things we have to do to strengthen the nursing workforce as a whole,'” she said.

There will be more elements in the plan to help nurses maintain work-life balance, Berry said.

The plan’s goal is to respond to the question: “how do we help our nurses stay healthy themselves?”

“If we don’t find a way to improve work-life balance we’ll always be in a place of constant turnover,” she said.

“It’s a big burden. We recognize that there are nursing shortages across the territory. It doesn’t mean that the quality of services [which] the nurses are delivering are less: it’s just they cannot take on any more.”

Nunavut is not unique in its need for nurses—a nursing shortage persists across Canada. But recruiting and retaining nurses in Nunavut is especially challenging, Berry said.

At present, there is only one program in Canada to train and provide certification for remote nursing.

“It leaves you in a very challenging position,” Berry said.

So Nunavut’s Health Department wants to develop its own pool of nurses and better support new nursing graduates for work in the North.

“We’re trying to train and build capacity,” she said.

This includes an orientation program and more training for nurses, as well as expanding mentorship beyond the one-year mentorship program currently offered to Nunavut Arctic College nursing graduates.

Right now, only about one-third of nurses in Nunavut are indeterminate, full-time GN employees.

About one-third are regular casuals, and another third are short-term agency nurses.

This graph prepared by Nunavut’s Health Department shows the territory’s total number of nursing positions (PY’s), and numbers for permanent (or indeterminate) nurses, casuals, as well as the vacant positions for the three regions. The figures reflect the situation in July.

Roughly, the same staffing situation is found among mental health nurses, said Victoria Madsen, the GN’s director of mental health.

Of the total permanent nurses, 14 are indeterminate mental health nursing positions. There are also 18 casual mental health nurses for an estimated 32 mental health nursing positions in total.

But the lack of stability compounds the challenge of trying to get a good fit between mental health nurses and the community, and keeping mental health nurses in place for a longer period.

Madsen said she often hears that the first question people in the communities ask their mental health workers is “how long are you here for?”

“That’s a sad thing, and I wish it was different,” Madsen said.

As well, there are two months of the year when having mental health nurses in place is particularly difficult—August and December.

And there are always communities with less coverage: Grise Fiord, served by Resolute Bay, 90 minutes away by air, and Whale Cove and Chesterfield Inlet, which share one mental health nurse position.

Larger communities have more than one mental health nurse because of their size, Madsen said.

Baker Lake’s new mental health nurse arrives this week, which will mean the end of a period of service reduction that was recently in place.

“There was a time in Baker Lake that we had an indeterminate nurse, a mental health consultant with a masters in social work, and an outreach worker,” Madsen said.

“These three were a wonderful team and that’s what we strive for. Sometimes it all lines up and we see that it works.… They had a lot of programs. It was really pleasing.”

But Madsen said that when you look at Nunavut as a whole “you can see how much need there still is.”

You can find community mental health workers in 17 communities, she said, and “that is where the solution is going to come from.”

“When filled with local Inuit, they are stable and they know the community,” Madsen said.

The GN is now encouraging on-the-job learning and support for community health workers.

“We think that will help and increase retention,” Madsen said.

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by bob on


  2. Posted by Where are you NAC? on

    There are volumes that could be said on the issues of mental health in the North, and I am not qualified to speak on them. But, I will point out one area of weakness I at least perceive there to be in the approach to resolve them. The article mentions on the job training for community health workers. This is not a bad idea, but I also think much, much, much more needs to be done to provide training in the communities by Nunavut Arctic College. Let’s see some career development programing focused on mental health work, human service work, social work, etc… provided by the College. It seems so many CLC’s are doing very little, when the need for programs from them is so great.

    • Posted by Mavis Agyirakwah on

      I am interested in working as a social worker for this reputable organization should my candidacy chosen as am willing to relocate as soon as possible and render the necessary help needed to the people. Thank you.

  3. Posted by Martha Cooper on

    Great to keep up on all the updated news

  4. Posted by Crystal Clarity on

    Better come up with a plan to recruit and retain educators too. Getting pretty dismal on that front. Hard to hire people and with the conditions in schools, DEA’s on power trips and the high cost of living it is getting pretty hard to attract people speak less of good people. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel already.

    • Posted by We don’t need no education, but we do need health care on

      Ah Crystal Clarity, have you ever heard of anyone in the education world concerned about teachers maintaining a work life balance? This made me smile. We need it all, we need people to feel welcome and supported, we need the communities to think they are well served and we need flexibility and commonsense to drive the hiring and retention systems. We aren’t just drawing the bottom of the barrel for teachers, the barrel no longer exists. Nurses at least are being treated with the idea that someone is caring for them and I hope they achieve a level of employment that takes the pressure of each other and allows them to enjoy the odd weekend or two. That way, when the frustrated and ill teachers come in, they can help!

    • Posted by Teacher 1 on

      I spoke with a Nunavut principal recently with regard to the shortage of teachers in that school. The principal’s only expressed concern was the need for “a warm body in the school form 9 to 3, five days a week.”

      • Posted by Sad reality on

        A sad testament to how ones values can be negotiated and corrupted into something unrecognizable within a dysfunctional system, operating beyond the limits of ones control.

  5. Posted by Casuals on

    I hope the new package is nice to casuals. The territory is not going to stop needing casuals, and many positions are going vacant (there are more vacancies than this graph wants you to believe). If you are nice to the temporary nurses that you so desperately need, then guess what? They will return and do repeated contracts for you, and over time, can provide more continuity in communities than a full-timer who gets burned out after a year or two and leaves.

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