Nunavummiut deserve better than GN’s silent treatment

Kudos to 2 MLAs for calling out cabinet-level stonewalling, but the problem runs deeper

During their winter sitting in November, members of Nunavut’s legislative assembly, shown in a file photo from March, admonished cabinet ministers for not providing clear, direct answers to the questions they ask. (File photo by David Venn)

By Corey Larocque

We feel your pain, Solomon Malliki and Alexander Sammurtok!

Those two members of Nunavut’s legislative assembly led regular MLAs in admonishing the territory’s cabinet earlier this month, saying they don’t like how cabinet ministers stonewall them.

“We’re not getting direct answers to our questions,” said Malliki, the MLA for Aivilik, in the legislative assembly on Nov. 7.

You’re not alone, Mr. Malliki and Mr. Sammurtok.

And it’s not just cabinet ministers who don’t answer questions. A culture of silence is pervasive in Nunavut’s public sector.

Five years ago, Canada’s auditor general diagnosed a culture of obedience in the federal public service, where bureaucrats were afraid of taking risks and making mistakes.

Malliki and Sammurtok have highlighted a similar risk-aversion in Nunavut’s cabinet. If that’s how it is at the top, can we be surprised that that attitude filters down through the territory’s entire public service?

In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to make the federal government “open by default.”

That principle has been at the heart of Canada’s access to information laws for 40 years, and at the heart of democracy for centuries. The principle behind access laws is that every government record belongs to the public and should be theirs for the asking, subject to some narrowly defined exemptions.

So why do members of the public, journalists and, evidently, MLAs have such a hard time getting answers from their government?

Distance makes it easier for government to ignore questions, especially when the person asking for it is in a far-off community. Nunavut’s public service has a culture where bureaucrats don’t stick their necks out, a circumstance that management and politicians tolerate.

A Nunatsiaq News reporter recently doing a follow-up on a sewage spill in Rankin Inlet got a response to his question that didn’t include the name of the public servant who provided it. The email was signed simply, “Department of Community and Government Services Communications.”

If you want better performance from the public service, hold them accountable. Make government officials — whether they’re cabinet ministers, spokespeople or front-line workers — attach their names to their work.

Another reporter asked a federal department what’s new in a high-profile cultural project. “We’ll tell you when we’re ready,” was the answer.

That’s not how government should work. When the public asks a question to a government department, a government employee should answer it.

Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner Graham Steele reported in July that the Education Department didn’t respond to an access to information request for seven months. The request just sat in somebody’s inbox, collecting dust.

In September, Steele said Nunavut’s government needs a “change in attitude” when it comes to disclosing information to the public. Certainly, the MLAs’ admonishment of cabinet addresses a similar problem.

Nunavut has serious social and economic issues to face. Poverty. Hunger. Housing. Mental health. And a heartbreaking suicide crisis.

Addressing these crises requires honest, straightforward talk about them.

That requires government to give people the information they ask for, when they ask for it. Of course, that applies whether it’s an ordinary citizen, a journalist or an MLA who is asking for it.

 

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(20) Comments:

  1. Posted by I Wonder… on

    I wonder how much of this is caused by Nunatsiaq News not being seen as a ‘real’ newspaper? Would the Globe and Mail be brushed off in such a manner?

    I also wonder if it is a reflection of the belief in the quality and approach of the new breed of ‘journalist’ employed by Nunatsiaq News. Would respected journalists such Jim Bell or Jane George be treated this way?

    Anecdotally, Nunatsiaq News has plummeted in seriousness and credibility in the eyes of many, and maybe this sense of contempt has bled over to GN interactions with them?

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    • Posted by Decay of Corporate Culture on

      My guess is it has almost nothing to do with the prestige or reputation of this publication, whatever that might be. I can be very critical of Nunatsiaq (deservedly), but this is not their problem, it is a corporate culture problem within the government. I have noticed it myself and have noticed it getting worse, even within the Department where I work.

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    • Posted by John WP Murphy on

      I agree and perhaps NN could set the example by ensuring that all comments include the commenter’s real name and not a fake name

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  2. Posted by Brambleberry on

    All good points. You may be aware already, but in many departments, the Minister requires that interaction with the media be approved by the Minister (read Minister’s Executive Assistant) before going out. Makes for a lot of missed publication deadlines.

    Gun-shy, inexperienced Ministers would rather remain mum than risk screwing up and taking the heat. Detailed, thought out speaking points that are sent up the line in briefing notes never make it onto the record because Ministers would rather not take a stand in public. The message is also clear to senior public servants – watch what you say or risk your job.

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    • Posted by YCO on

      he needs to hand over his seat to my old pal savikataaq and become his secretary so he can learn a thing or 2 same with all the cabinet ministers

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      • Posted by yco2.o on

        what has Joe done for our Territory? all i remember is the covid stuff hes done. wasnt even enough.

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  3. Posted by Band Wagon on

    The initiatives to advocate socio-economic development:
    – Create GN jobs in non-decentralized
    – Infrastructure
    – Housing
    – Education (academic monitor) relevant to post-secondary
    – Health
    – Develop training of elected Municipal governments (roles & responsibility) i.e. skunkworks

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  4. Posted by Chesley on

    The Peanut Gallery is in full form once again. Alternately the other parties are swept up by the hysteria of the military complex as if it would better things to have more slaughtering on the field than opening talks on peaceful resolution. The NDP, CP, LIB are all on the wrong page as history will prove that, providing there will be anyone remaining to write it.

    Comment not allowed on CBC site speaking of silent treatment and the Green Party leadership outcome.

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  5. Posted by Incompetence on

    Unless you’ve worked in this sphere you would mistake incompetence, no staff, and just no time, for some sort of secretive culture prone to conspire against information requests.
    .
    No one is hiding anything, it’s just no one knows what is going on.
    .
    The only solution to the problem is competence. It’s my belief Nunavut will only get that via remote work given decades of failure to hire enough local staff, let alone good staff.

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    • Posted by Hanlon’s Razor on

      Great comment.

      ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’

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  6. Posted by tuktuborel on

    I am glad this was brought up. GN and all the Inuit Organizations seem to be operating in a vacuum.

    We were promised Government would be different than the norm. It was to be open and transparent, a government of the people for the people. Well that sure didn’t happen. The Nunavut Government is barely functional and very closed to public oversight. There is so much more that could be done rather than current practice of same old and plugging holes.

    Things can be better and more progressive. Maybe we should let Greenland govern us!

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  7. Posted by Issues are real but your argument is weak. on

    I’m sorry, Corry Laroque, but your column has been measured, weighed, and found wanting.

    I don’t know if you needed to hit a specific word count for a Holiday bonus or just wanted to remind people the Editorial section still exists. Either way, this is just a lazy and weak effort that stirs little emotion.

    Many of these capacity, spineless bureaucrat, and weak leadership issues are real, but that’s all low-hanging fruit for anyone here. You articulate nothing new here. I hear better versions of this daily at work and the bar afterward.

    Flipping back and forth between Federal and Territorial jurisdictions, picking arbitrary pieces at random, dropping platitudes, and whining about trivial bits doesn’t come close to crafting a cohesive column to stir real emotion. Your column wouldn’t fit into the Territory of cultural appropriation, but it has a similar flavour, maybe a third cousin, once removed.

    Your column misses the mark because you don’t really know the players or the game. I get that it’s challenging to connect from your perch in Ottawa, but your lazy effort is insulting. I suggest you try living in the Territory, and then maybe you’ll be able to write something compelling that might call people to action next time. Your slip just reminds us how it’s not only government that lacks capacity or spine here.

    Now I truly know why people talk about the value of “boots on the ground. I also understand why traditional media is failing.

    Sorry, try again later.

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    • Posted by Nubiya on

      Oh wow, your response gave me goosebumps and I forgot what was said in the actual article. You should consider identifying yourself, to be properly commended for your exceptional insight and writing skills!

      Yes, I agree, except for a line or two, the article is underwhelming.

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    • Posted by Just sayin on

      Speaking of weak argumentation…

      Maybe try again later?

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  8. Posted by Joe Binn on

    I agree with with “Posted by Issues are real …”
    Corry Laroque your editorial demonstrate your incomprehension! Be a real journalist…this editorial is of the same quality than articles we can read in the National Enquiry! Either, you work in Ottawa or only been in the territory a few weeks or month. As an observer, my first recommendation is that you do real journalistic investigative work before you write editorials. In my view you have zero right to write on this issue without having your facts straight or without having investigated deeper to understand what is happening in Nunavut!

    Flipping back and forth between the Fedearal and theTerritorial jurisdiction and attempt to confuse the readers with your interpretation of AtIIP and decisions rendered by the Privacy Commissioner is pathetic. You really don’t know the players in the games and what kind of political game they are playing! Maybe you should start with the Privacy Commissioner….who’s totally impartial, lol! A former political columnist for CBC and former NDP Minister who used is personal phone to communicate with his staff and colleagues to avoid transparency and obligation to report! Oups! it’s true there wasn’t any policy about that! Also, Corry I don’t think you have sit an entire session to listen to our MLAs! You would have realized that 90% of their questions are a mix of political statement with inaccurate information with a bit of question that most of the time amount to an attempt to micromanage how Department work. Don’t confuse accountability with the lack of education and knowledge of how government’s administration do their work.
    If you have been on the field you would have discovered that a lot of communication are controled by Minister’s Political advisors and even in the Premier’s office. Bureaucrats are totally unprotected when comes the time to disclose information about government business in Nunavut, and everybody know this. The Ethic Commissioner is a total joke! He investigated 33 complaints in 7 years!
    That’s 4.7 cases / year…here it goes for the whistle-blower protection. Finally, if the MLAs would ask clear an concise questions maybe they would get answers. It’s hard to answers a question that is not a question or when the information doesn’t exist because their is no employees in position to to brief his/her manager. Maybe Corry you should dig deeper with the GN and ask them why 1700 positions are not filled and why there is a massive exodus of staff from the GN and why every Departments are seriously under staffed? Just a hints…you might have a real story/editorial to write with this subject instead of writing a salad of platitudes and the lack of GN accountability!

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  9. Posted by AnonYmouse on

    Hey Joe, very nice effort really, take a bow.

    I can see what you are trying to do here and want to help. Try running your next great polemic through grammarly.com, or even a spell check.

    You are welcome in advance, and you can thank me later!

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    • Posted by Joe Binn on

      Sorry AnonYmouse!
      My phone grammar corrector plays trick on me! However, the message remains the same. I usually do not write to receive applauses but I like to put my grain of salt in what I perceive as ” Fake News”.

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