Year Two, Chapter One: Why I Really Left the GN
“I don’t really like people from Toronto.”
That was one of the first things a new co-worker said to me, on my first day of work at the Government of Nunavut (GN). Though inappropriate, I brushed it off (to be honest, Torontonians are kind of used to hearing it), but in hindsight, it was perhaps an early warning sign of things to come.
I was the territory’s new Sexual Health Program Coordinator. In my last post, I talked about thinking it was the perfect job for me, a blend of my educational and professional background (Masters of Public Health and years doing sexual health counselling and workshops).
I entered my new role with, I am sure, a jaunty outfit and an equally jaunty disposition. As I toured the office and met my new co-workers, I remember feeling excited, motivated, inspired. Here were all these others humans, interested in the public’s health, and we were going to work together to bring wellness to Nunavut.
It didn’t take long before I started to see the cracks in the system. Some of these were systematic - I questioned their mandates and role in the community, the antiquated (teetering on problematic) methods of community health delivery - while others were more functional, like poor communication channels and siloed divisions. Add to this all the weirdness of having a colonial-style government system in an Indigenous territory, and you have a cocktail of bureaucratic flops. But it wasn’t the bureaucracy that got me in the end; it was the bureaucrats.
In general, I liked my colleagues, but there was always one person who I seemed to rub the wrong way (and in turn, vice versa). I can’t tell you how much I have speculated, alone and with others, as to why she and I never got along, but the truth is, sometimes there is no explanation for human relationships (though if you want an educated guess, it was some mixture of insecurity and misunderstanding).
It started with microaggressions from that one individual. Interrupting, condescension, snide comments about my clothing, lifestyle, presence in Iqaluit; it was annoying, but so were many other things about the job, and it didn’t affect my work flow. And anyway, this person didn’t work with me directly. I chose to ignore.
Then came one of the GN’s infamous reorganizations of the organizational chart, and this one saw the individual I had been getting so good at ignoring enter into a middle management position. Honestly, this came as a shock, especially because there were more qualified, longer-term, Inuit employees who could have filled this position. Why they were overlooked, I cannot say (though I speculate as to some of these reasons in a section below). What I did note was that this newly promoted person gained the ear of my supervisor, and with it an increase in power which seemed to grow in tandem with her distaste for me.
I remember distinctly the day I knew I was in trouble. I walked into my supervisor’s office for a routine check-in, and we spoke briefly about my file and projects. I had generally felt that we had a positive relationship, and she had awarded me a lot of autonomy on my projects. This day, though, she said she had some other business to discuss.
“I hear you’ve been calling Aeroplan while at work,” she started.
Taken aback, I stammered, “What?” She repeated her accusation. “I don’t have any Aeroplan trips coming up and generally Justin does our bookings,” I responded, still a little stupefied. “Who said this to you?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“Okay, well, I also hear you’re on Twitter a lot,” she continued. At that, I had to smile. “Yeah, I go on Twitter a lot. It’s kind of how I take breaks, instead of smoke breaks or coffee breaks,” I explained. “Is there an issue with the quality or timing of my work? Am I not getting things done as I should?” She had no comment.
As politely as I could (and trust me, this took some effort), I said, “Perhaps next time someone is talking to you about me, you can ask them to talk to me first to resolve the misunderstanding.” My supervisor immediately became defensive, spitting back at me with, “I’ll handle these situations how I think best.” What was I to say to that?
I left her office and pulled a colleague aside; we went into the lobby with another trusted co-worker and with hot, angry tears rolling down my face I relayed what had happened. I was humiliated, frustrated, and at a loss of what to do. One of my co-workers suggested that I watch myself, be careful with what I do and say and how I behave, for the next little while. It seemed like the best thing to do for my job, but the worst I could do for my self-worth.
In the coming months, the harassment continued and expanded beyond personal attacks and started bleeding into my ability to do my job. I was ordered to change seats, exchanging my open, shared desk space (with a window!) for one of the smallest, darkest cubicles - even though my original spot remained vacant. I always felt like someone was watching over my shoulder (in case I tweeted too much?). And then, I started being treated as though I was incompetent and incapable, without any real feedback or critique about the actual work I was producing.
In reality, my performance was quite the opposite: one of my major projects was to overhaul the department’s sexual health website; the redesign I led is regularly hailed as exemplary, a precedent for other site designs. Also, a lot of my job involved collaborating with community-level staff, and though they were always effusively excited to work with me, I don’t remember any of them being called in to comment on the program or approach, ever. Where was the due diligence on the part of my supervisor?
Working with others was always an important part of my integration strategy. As a Nunavut newcomer and outsider, I felt odd and awkward and inadequate to run the program entirely on my own, and so, I didn’t. To create my work plans, I conferred with Theresa (because of her role as Territorial Community Health Representative Coordinator and her background with sexual health), regional directors, epidemiologists, and community-level nursing supervisors. I also regularly touched base with the previous Sexual Health Program Coordinator, who had created the entire program.
Despite all this volunteered time spent with counsel, I was informed that I was “in need of some guidance” by my supervisor. She assigned me to a few staff members, including the individual who so clearly disliked me (I have no doubt that this was her idea). They would go over my suggested work plan and make recommendations (but, was that not my manager’s job?).
I went into my first “working group” meeting like I would a courtroom. I collected emails and testimonies from community-level staff across the regions to defend my work plan. I brought out the survey responses from Community Health Representatives about the workshops I had held the following year, all of which indicated that yes, I was doing something right. I even asked Theresa to summarize her thoughts into a report, which she did, detailing the conversations we had had about the program. Basically, I brought proof.
None of this mattered, though. As soon as I sat down with the “working group,” it became clear that there would be no “working” on anything - the decisions had been made, clearly by one person. The other members of the “working group” barely got a word in edgewise, and I can’t fault them for acquiescing to the oppressing behaviour; survival sometimes requires silence.
Not one person made reference to the thoughtful, detailed recommendations Theresa had provided for the sexual health program. At the time, she was one of maybe two Inuit in a non-administrative position within the department.
This type of workplace harassment and bullying is not uncommon in the GN, and in many ways, what I experienced is not its worst form. Thomas Rohner at Nunatsiaq News recently published an excellent series on the phenomenon (check out part one and part two). He found stories of bullying so severe that its victims were left with mental and physical health issues. Sadly, the harassment seems to disproportionately affect Inuit employees (including them being overlooked for promotions, as happened in my department), a disgraceful hybrid of intimidation and racism.
I read Thomas’ piece and thought, hey, at least my experience wasn’t that bad. But you know what? It was still pretty awful. I remember coming home drained, despondent. I hated going to work. Normally chatty and social, I stopped attending work-related functions and participating in conversations at the office. At one point, I wondered if I should leave Iqaluit.
For anyone who hasn’t been the victim of bullying, all of this may seem pedantic. Why didn’t I do something, or say something? If I was good at my job, then why pay heed to one crappy coworker?
What you need to understand is that this type of behaviour can only exist within a larger system of intimidation and corruption. It’s easy for me to pin all my disdain onto the one individual who really had it in for me, but the truth is, she was part of a system that allows these behaviours to exist - and so was I. When bullying goes unchecked, the entire environment becomes contaminated, toxic.
I consider myself an experienced target, having faced bullies in some form since about grade five until well into university (I remember watching Mean Girls and thinking, “Who was spying on me in the high school bathroom eating lunch?”). I’ve learned that bullying doesn’t have to define you, but it will always affect you - and the people around you. I know that in those dark days where the harassment was deepest, I was not a great coworker and I was a subpar version of myself as a partner; I am still sorry for that.
I’ve also learned that there are certain factors that facilitate bullying, and I think the environment within the territorial government has many of these traits. First, there are the embarrassing but very obvious “class” distinctions of Nunavut: Northerners and Southerners; Inuit and non-Inuit; Southerners who have been here longer than X number of years and all the Southerners newer than them.
Then, realize that the GN suffers from chronic understaffing, which is sometimes remedied by unqualified hires, some of whom occupy their unmerited positions with an insecure guard. Expanding on this, there is a “last one standing” mentality that promotes some of said unqualified hires to supervisory positions; anecdotally, these individuals are the most likely to feel vulnerable in their jobs, while holding the most power over others.
And finally, despite it being vibrant and exciting and unexpected, Iqaluit is still a really small city, meaning separating the personal from the professional is nearly impossible. It’s like being in a GN high school, except nearly everyone goes home for lunch (so no washroom stall meals for me).
When you throw all of these factors into the petri dish that is the territorial government, the reaction is part identity crisis, part self preservation, part inexperience, and a whole lot of entitlement. No surprise then, that the interface of these factors can result in the type of bullying I describe here, and that was documented in Nunatsiaq News.
My tenure at the GN ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. I was called into my supervisor’s office for another routine check-in, the both of us equally detached and disconnected from our working relationship. After the usual pleasantries and rote lists, I made a few requests, one of them being permission to take Level Two Inuktitut lessons. I had completed Level One not long before, with the amazing, amazing Myna Ishulutak as my instructor, and I had done really well. The course was covered by the GN, and professional development was also listed clearly in my work plan.
Despite all this, my supervisor rejected the request. “You’re on a CSA,” she had the gall to say, “and the course ends after your next renewal period.” Even after all I’d experienced, this response shocked me with its bureaucratic hypocrisy. Here I was, working a job for nearly a year and a half, requesting training that would help me do my job better - and I was denied based on the crooked contract I had been offered by the GN.
For those of you who don’t know, a CSA, or Casual Service Agreement, is four-month contract the GN can sign with an employee for any unfilled position. In the Collective Agreement between the Nunavut Employees Union and the GN, there is a clear protocol for CSAs, which states that they cannot last longer than four months and cannot be used in lieu of establishing a full-time, term position.
And yet, this is exactly what each and every department does. It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that CSAs require less scrutiny and human resources to fill; essentially, an employer can handpick a candidate and then hand them the job. Employers say this helps fill necessary positions during lengthy full-term hiring processes, which I think is partially true.
For the employee, a CSA is a quick entry point into working for the territorial government. Though they take a risk signing a contract with no job security, it is generally understood that CSA workers should be treated like term employees, with access to benefits like healthcare and training. After 18 months of (prohibited) CSA renewals, I had an expectation of this unspoken rule; I never anticipated being punished for engaging in a contract that benefited my employer more than it benefitted me (though, as I type that sentence I think, should I have been so surprised?).
Ultimately, this denial was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. You can insult me and kibosh my ideas; you can annoy me into aphasia; you can test my self-worth and esteem; but take away my opportunity to learn (and with Myna!), and you’ve got yourself a problem. At the end of that four-month period, I did not pursue the option of renewal.
The department put forward funds to throw me a build-your-own ice cream sundae goodbye party, but never asked me to explain why I decided to leave (I wonder why). Consider this my exit interview.
I think it’s important to say that I don’t regret my time at the GN. It was where I met Sara, who started this blog with me. It was there that I was given the opportunity to travel and meet many wonderful Nunavummiut I wouldn’t have otherwise. It paid me well. And, if anything, working for the government gave me the chance to test working a 9-to-5 office job. Spoiler alert: I haven’t had another one since 2014.