Nunavut’s COVID-19 quarantine requirement hampering private construction: developer

“We’re private, we don’t get a dime, we have to pay out of pocket, and so we’re trying to do what we can where we can”

The new hotel now under construction by Jam 2016 Investments Inc. is taking shape. The four-storey, 86-suite hotel, with a restaurant, covers two parcels of land at the intersection of Queen Elizabeth Way and Niaqunngusiariaq Road in Iqaluit. (Photo by Milan Mrdjenovich)

By Jane George

The requirement for non-essential workers to go into isolation before coming to Nunavut has complicated progress on four major construction projects in Iqaluit.

The mandated two-week stays at hubs in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Yellowknife are intended to keep COVID-19 out of the territory, but this makes it harder to recruit construction workers, said developer Milan Mrdjenovich.

“And it’s going to hurt the economy,” said Mrdjenovich, the son of Mike Mrdjenovich, whose Edmonton-based Nova Builders Inc. put up many buildings in and around Iqaluit’s downtown core.

His own company, 5437 Nunavut Ltd., and Jam 2016 Investments Inc., owned by his sisters, are in the middle of several projects: a new hotel, an office building, a staff house and renovations for what will become Iqaluit’s new city hall.

But Mrdjenovich said that most workers from the south are not interested in heading to Iqaluit once they hear they must go into quarantine before coming to Nunavut.

Some workers who do agree to the isolation quit after a day or two, he said.

One worker was told he had to restart his two-week isolation after stepping out to buy a soda pop on day 10. He quit.

“I have never heard a good story yet,” Mrdjenovich said of the quarantine.

The obligation to complete the quarantine is also hard on workers who are already in Iqaluit and would like to go out for a break. They don’t because they can’t stand the idea of the isolation on their return, Mrdjenovich said.

“The guys that are here, some since January, they are starting to get burned out,” he said. “But they don’t want to leave.

“So the isolation is killing the crews. And it’s not just our crews, but everyone else’s crews, too. It’s hard to go into isolation for two weeks because you feel like you’re going to jail, that you’re a criminal. They feel like they are being punished.”

Mrdjenovich, who also spent two weeks at an isolation hub in Yellowknife, said the impact of the two-week period on construction logistics and costs is difficult.

When workers go home for two weeks, then they have to go into quarantine for two weeks, “so you’re really missing them for a month,” he said.

“I know why it’s needed, but there’s no leeway.”

The quarantine also means an increased cost to private companies because, Mrdjenovich said, you must pay your workers while they sit in the isolation hubs.

“Everything’s getting more expensive, and you know what is going to happen: the end user is going to pay more,” Mrdjenovich said.

“We’re trying to work, and it’s just tough. It’s a real strain financially on us.”

On the other hand, the expense of government workers’ quarantines would be covered, he said.

“It’s a bit of a double standard. But what are we going to do? We can’t abandon halfway through,” Mrdjenovich said. “We’re private, we don’t get a dime, we have to pay out of pocket, and so we’re trying to do what we can where we can.”

Mrdjenovich said there are not enough people in Iqaluit willing and able to work in construction because many have tapped into programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

“We’re short-staffed and working 60 hours a week trying to catch up,” he said. “I understand that there’s a procedure to stop the spread of COVID-19, but on the other hand you look at people flying in because they have special status.”

On site, everyone is diligent and tries to respect social distancing, he said.

Hand sanitizers are plentiful, but most workers don’t wear masks on the job.

“It’s tough to work and have something over your face. It’s hard to breathe, but everyone is aware [of COVID-19 prevention]. It is a challenge,” he said.

Here is an artist’s rendition of the three-storey, 33,000-square-foot office building now under construction on the site of the former Toonoonik Sahoonik co-op in Iqaluit by Milan Mrdjenovich’s 5437 Nunavut Ltd. (Supplied image)

On Aug. 15, his crew starts work on the new Iqaluit city hall premises: a ground-floor, 9,000-square-foot space in building 1085, around the corner from the site of the now-demolished Navigator Inn.

Work also continues on Jam 2016 Investments’ four-storey, 86-suite hotel, with a restaurant, on two parcels of land at the intersection of Queen Elizabeth Way and Niaqunngusiariaq Road.

That should be open to the public in January, Mrdjenovich said.

As well, Mrdjenovich’s workers are starting to build a 10-bedroom staff house in Joamie Court and complete a three-storey office building on the site of the former Toonoonik Sahoonik co-op, near the beer and wine store.

The 33,000-square-foot office building should also be finished early in the new year.

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by iWonder on

    Meanwhile, in a surprising act of exceptionalism our political leaders have decided that they have no obligation to isolate. If you are an essential worker you also have no obligation to isolate. I expect people will posture and throw vitriol at these contractors and workers for complaining about this, but given the multiplicity of standards in play here we should at least take pause and consider the entire landscape before us and wonder why certain people are made to abide by different rules than others, and whether the decision to allow that is a well informed scientific one, or if some people simply evade the rules because they have the power to do so.

  2. Posted by Southerner in the North on

    It sounds as if Mr. Mrdjenovich’s family has been developing properties in Nunavut for several years. Had he and his family developed Inuit work crews early on, instead of relying on fly-in/fly-out workers, they wouldn’t be facing these problems now.

    • Posted by No jobs on

      They’d rather see our faces at the Chart room, not the board room.

      • Posted by Nearly Impossible on

        Northern faces, no matter their ethnicity, would be more immediately useful on the end of a wrench on some scaffolding.

        I can tell you from personal experience though that they are damn near impossible to get in Nunavut!

  3. Posted by Inuit won’t work on

    It’s too bad that people in this city will not work and do not want to work. $25/hr is probably the going rate for these guys. The joke is that these private developers are likely going to benefit from the GN paying for construction isolation once the crews are done with the GN projects in town. Maybe the private sector should sue the GN for the illegal isolation reqs?

    • Posted by Southerner in the North on

      IWW, your generalization about Inuit is simply not true. What is true is that Inuit workers don’t want to be paid less than Southern workers and they want work that is meaningful and respected. They don’t want to be assigned to basic labouring because the employer assumes they don’t have other skills or is filling a quota for Inuit employment.

      That is what my original comment was referring to. Companies and developers with a long-term interest in the North have an obligation to help develop the skills of local workforces. Otherwise they are no different than the whalers who just took resources and largely exploited the Inuit.

      • Posted by Sir Toppam Hatt on

        It would be interesting to do a side by side skills and experience comparison between these imported ‘Southern’ workers and their Northern counterparts. That would probably shed considerable light on the issue of labour value fairly quickly. I’ve been in the north many years, I have employed both Northerners and Southerners and in my experience there is a huge skills gap. The idea that a local work force can just substitute skilled positions on a project like this one is really not reality. It is unfortunate and of course the urge to blame and call racism or whatever else seems like a natural course, but it doesn’t tell us much of anything about how things really are. Perhaps the first thing we need to look at is education opportunities.

        • Posted by Southerner in the North on

          Yes, there is a huge skills gap between Southerners and Northerners precisely because the necessary investments, by Southern developers contractors, in a Northern workforce haven’t materialized. Which is my point.

        • Posted by No jobs on

          People like to support their own…or people they think are the same as them. You see it all over town. Companies run by Newfoundlanders that bring in a bunch of people from Newfoundland, and this developer’s workers coming up from Alberta probably lost their jobs because of the oil crash. They’re helping out people who need the work.
          But at the same time they’ve created this loophole of being able to do work in Nunavut while living in a bubble. They dont have to hire local because there’s too much work to do. They don’t have to train anyone because they know of a guy back home who does this exact sort of work and it’ll only cost a plane ticket to get him here. No culture clash, no misunderstandings, no families to distract the workers, just work work work. How can local people who want to work compete with that? They can’t.
          We can complain about the bubble or how this is hurting the business sector, but this complaint comes directly from a company in Alberta that hires their guys to open a hotel and restaurant that we don’t really need (QC’s is bigger and almost ready) and would have been built by someone else eventually. This doesn’t impact Nunavummiut lives in the slightest.

          • Posted by Sir Toppam Hatt on

            Most projects like this contain Inuit hiring requirements. I expect this one would as well. Still, the expectation that a skilled labour pool could be generated via work experience on these sporadic projects is one of our pet fantasies in Nunavut. The burden falling to companies who are trying to complete work within a short timeframe and already stretched budgets is not reality either. Education seems like an after thought in all this, but without it there will be little progress.

            • Posted by Southerner in the North on

              Private sector projects, like this, have absolutely no Inuit hiring or training requirements. Such requirements only apply to GN-funded projects of a certain size. Summer construction projects are the only opportunity to provide a large number of Inuit with on-the-job training and experience in the construction trades. So unless the Southern contractors provide those opportunities, Inuit will continue to be less skilled that the Southern workers.

      • Posted by This Town’s People on

        He at no point spoke of Inuit, he spoke of ‘people in this town’, which is more than 40% non-Inuit, and growing.

        Getting skilled work, regardless of ethnicity, is an incredible challenge in Iqaluit, probably the most challenging I’ve seen outside of Calgary in the boom years.

  4. Posted by No sympathy on

    hire local. No sympathy whatsoever.

  5. Posted by Developer on

    Normally I don’t respond, but after reading the comments, I wanted to make some things clear. The news people contacted me, not me contacting them. They asked a bunch of questions which I answered. In regards to hiring of local people vs “southerners”, we have a lot of local workers employed. We also have people employed from, New foundland, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC, and NWT. As we are all Canadian, this shouldn’t really be a point of contention. We have been working in Iqaluit since 1988, and the north since 1974. It’s astounding to me to see comments like this. We are all trying to make Iqaluit a better place to live in and provide more services to the city. To be shamed for taking a major financial risk in doing projects of these type is short sighted. I personally love Iqaluit and want the best for this place and it’s people.
    That being said, we are here for the betterment of the community. Have a good day.

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