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Minister appalled by need for heightened security to protect health staff

In some Nunavut communities nurses are being threatened and need higher levels of security, which deters the health professionals from returning and others from ever going, Health Minister George Hickes says.

“I would like to think that the majority of people in our communities don’t have ill will for our health-care workers,” says Health Minister George Hickes.
NNSL file photo

“To be frank, I find it appalling that health care professionals, who are really trying hard to work for our people, feel in danger. We’ve had community health centres that are very difficult to staff because people talk; health professionals talk,” Hickes said in the legislative assembly on Sept. 29. “There are certain communities where they do not want to work … because of the way they’re treated.”

Those comments were sparked by Pangnirtung MLA Margaret Nakashuk’s repeated questions about why more local residents weren’t being hired as security guards at the community health centre.

Hickes explained that the enhanced security required in Pangnirtung generally means that ex-law enforcement agents are employed due to the level of risk.

The Department of Health didn’t provide answers to Nunavut News’ questions about specific incidents that prompted the elevated level of security in Pangnirtung, nor any indication which other Nunavut communities have enhanced security. However, Hickes said he believes the Government of Nunavut spent a total of $2.7 million on health centre security last year.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to go to this level of actually providing security in our health centres. I would like to think that the majority of people in our communities don’t have ill will for our health-care workers,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to continue to recruit staff in some of our communities with the way that our health centre staff are treated. Things really need to change … We need to take a serious look at our own behaviour and we have to recognize that whether you agree or disagree with the situation, there’s a proper process to follow to voice your concerns in a professional, (respectful) manner.”

Nakashuk insisted that there should be appropriate levels of training provided to certify Pangnirtung residents as qualified security guards “as they are familiar with their own community and its social issues.”

Hickes said he would have his officials contact the security contractors to ensure such training is offered. He also pointed out that three local people were hired in the past but all three left the job.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in those cases and we have to continue to find out why it doesn’t work out,” the minister said.

He also stressed that the level of qualifications is paramount.

“When we’re talking security in a health centre, they’re responding to a call to help make sure that that nurse or that medical staff or clinician is safe in the workplace. That is the priority under this,” he said. “We have to make sure that when people take on these roles, it’s a very important critical role to the operations of the health centre.”

Pangnirtung Mayor Eric Lawlor couldn’t be reached for comment.

Denise Bowen, executive director of the Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, said she was unaware of any threats or violence in Pangnirtung that led to heightened security. However, she emailed a general statement on violence in the workplace.

“Much of the violence that occurs continues to be under-reported and is costly to the healthcare system. In recent Canadian studies (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, 2017) 61 per cent of nurses had experienced some form of serious workplace violence in the past year,” Bowen wrote. “We know that nurses faced with violence in the workplace may refuse to work in unsafe conditions – some will resign from the job, and, in some cases, they will leave the profession entirely.”