Nurses speak out about toxic work environment

Current, former staff allege harassment, abuse, blacklisting make it harder for Nunavummiut to access health care

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the work environment in Nunavut’s health centres.

Nurses say a toxic workplace culture in Nunavut’s health centres is driving them out of the territory and, in some cases, out of the profession entirely.

“People say, ‘Oh, pay them more, pay them more.’ No, dummies, Nunavut is scary,” says Jessica Garner, who worked in Baker Lake and Gjoa Haven between April 2019 and September 2020.

She came to the territory looking for an adventure and an opportunity to help people. Instead, she says she was worked to the bone, harassed by her colleagues and superiors and eventually blacklisted from working in the territory after asking for help.

Garner is one of several nurses sounding an alarm about a workplace culture in Nunavut they say is so toxic it creates a barrier to health care.

Garner’s story

Garner was a registered nurse hired to work in Baker Lake as a mental-health nurse. She regularly worked 24-hour shifts that started at the health centre from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but was then on-call for the rest of the night. She said she would sometimes get calls from her colleagues every couple of hours, all night long, about things that were not necessary for her to be involved in.

Jessica Garner says she put up decorations in the Baker Lake health centre to help boost morale. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Garner)

Garner detailed a number of ways she tried to improve care and staff morale at the health centre.

She recalled a highlight of her time in Baker Lake involved working with RCMP to improve the police department’s working relationship with the health centre.

But most initiatives, she said, made things worse. Garner tried offering tips on when it’s appropriate to call the mental health nurse during overnight shifts, for example, but that only resulted in more calls from her colleagues.

“Like when in war, the enemies drop bombs randomly and constantly so soldiers get sleep deprivation,” Garner said.

She wrote an email to her director asking for help in October 2019, warning the work environment was contributing to a shortage of nurses and physicians at the health centre.

Nothing came of this email, Garner said. She also filed harassment complaints to the Department of Human Resources and says, to this day, she has no idea what happened to them.

Garner requested a transfer in May 2020 to a public health position in Gjoa Haven, hoping it would be a better working environment.

“It was a waking nightmare,” Garner said of Gjoa Haven.

There, she said she was harassed by co-workers and managers to the point of experiencing extreme anxiety and panic attacks.

Garner asked to be transferred out of Gjoa Haven, but her request was denied. She resigned in September 2020, hoping to continue with the GN as a casual nurse but said the territory wouldn’t have her back, despite having a positive performance review and other positive feedback, copies of which Nunatsiaq News has seen.

Garner gave up her nursing licence in 2022 after eight years of practice, disillusioned with the systems that are supposed to protect her.

She said she loves Nunavut and its people and she loves nursing, but the bad outweighs the good.

Garner said she is speaking out because she believes the situation creates a barrier to care for the people who live there.

“Good nurses leave or are kicked out, and the nurses that stay are the bullies and they are the ones that rise in these positions,” she said.

“It creates a crisis situation.”

Nurses asked for help, got reprimanded instead

Garner’s story is echoed by 10 other nurses who spoke to Nunatsiaq News at length about working in seven communities spanning all three regions of Nunavut.

Nunatsiaq News is protecting their identities because they either currently work in Nunavut or are between contracts and fear reprisals for speaking out.

This is an excerpt from an email Jessica Garner sent to one of her managers, asking for help, on Oct. 3, 2019. Garner says nothing came of this email. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Garner)

All of them, like Garner, enthusiastically described their love of Nunavut, but say they’ve experienced severe trauma, in some cases resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses from the workplace culture in the health centres.

Many say they have filed formal harassment complaints, only to see them disappear into a black hole.

Speaking up about harassment seems to only invite more abuse, they say.

Multiple nurses described instances where they were reprimanded after asking for help and said they go to work every day terrified for their well-being.

One nurse, who has spent close to four years working in Nunavut, described health centres as “little dictatorships” run with no accountability.

Another nurse, who has worked in two communities, said, “There is an overarching feeling of somebody staring at you through a microscope, who hasn’t done your job for 20 years and is four years away from a pension…. [They] don’t like me because I’m making their job hard.”

These allegations come as no surprise to Jason Rochon, president of the Nunavut Employees Union.

He said he’s heard hundreds of stories over the years from nurses who say they are terrified.

“It’s something I’ve heard people talking about for decades here in Nunavut,” Rochon said.

“We hear from casuals who say they use their voice, and the next thing they know they’re blacklisted. That’s a real thing, the GN needs to admit how many workers have been blacklisted for using their voice. How dangerous is that?”

When asked, Health Minister John Main said he is not aware of a formal blacklisting policy, but individuals might be flagged through the Department of Human Resources process of background and reference checks.

Health centre closures

Meanwhile, Canada suffers under a nationwide nursing shortage, a problem that extends to Nunavut.

Five of Nunavut’s community health centres have temporarily closed since last summer due to a lack of health-care staff.

Kinngait experienced two closures — once in August 2022 for about a month and again in December for 10 days.

Pangnirtung also closed for a week in August 2022 and Grise Fiord closed for two days last October.

Kimmirut closed twice — once in September 2022 for a little over a week, then in March of this year for two days.

Arctic Bay closed for seven days between May and June this year.

In an interview with Nunatsiaq News, Main called workplace bullying and harassment “unacceptable” and acknowledged the territory has struggled with nurse retention.

He said the Health Department surveyed 100 Nunavut nurses in 2021 to inform a strategy to bolster its workforce.

That strategy, Roadmap to Strengthen the Nunavut Nursing Workforce, is in the process of implementation.

One survey response highlighted in the report says: “If you are able to voice your concerns and feel someone is listening and doing something, that [boosts] morale.”

Watch for Part 2 of this series which explores how the GN’s Department of Human Resources handles harassment complaints.


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