Contractors worry they'll be out of work if local businesses aren't prioritized by territory
Focus should be on "shovel-ready" housing projects, advocate says
Steven Steeves, a journeyman and mechanic from Fort Liard, N.W.T., divides his work time between road maintenance contracts in northern British Columbia, and general labour work for companies in Liard and Fort Smith, N.W.T.
But since the coronavirus outbreak, work has dried up, he said.
"I've had these contracts for 12 years and that's where I wanted to retire and work from my cabin, but I don't think that's going to happen anymore," Steeves told CBC.
The B.C-N.W.T border, along with Highway 7 into B.C., is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic — making it harder for him and other labourers that do cross-border contracts.
Steeves said journeymen like him generally share the little amount of work that they can find but now, he along with others, are turning to the $2,000 monthly cheque from the federal Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB).
It's really hard to make long-term predictions right now.- Matt Belliveau, executive director of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Construction Association
Steven's story is not unique — throughout the N.W.T, contract workers and their employers said the economic restart after the pandemic is an opportunity for the territory to prioritize local companies in the procurement process. If the government doesn't, they said they might have to look for work elsewhere.
Construction company might consider leaving N.W.T.
Matt Belliveau, executive director of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Construction Association, said that members are eager to see "more work out the door," during the summer — but that it's hard to figure out when things will go back to normal.
"It's really hard to make long term predictions right now," Belliveau said.
Jack Rowe, the president of Rowe's Construction, said his company has been able to weather the storm so far during the pandemic, because they had a steady stream of work from late December until the end of March.
The company has four or five ongoing projects in the South Slave and Dehcho regions, which will keep labourers busy until July.
If there's not going to be work afforded to you … then you have to find other markets or get out of the business.- Jack Rowe, president of Rowe's Construction
That's when the true impact of the pandemic could be felt, Rowe said, because the number of projects could slow down or the tenders could be given to competitive southern bidders, largely from Alberta and B.C.
Rowe said the territory has to consider a new way to support local over southern businesses in the procurement process — otherwise their company might have to think about leaving the N.W.T. or shutting down completely.
"We were born and raised here so we really don't want to go," Rowe said. "But … if there's not going to be work afforded to you … then you have to find other markets or get out of the business."
The territorial government already has a Business Incentive Policy (BIP) in place that gives preference to N.W.T. businesses in the procurement process. Companies registered with the program receive a reduction on their bids over southern companies, which helps them improve their overall ranking for the project.
The territory says on its website that it will start updating the procurement processes this year with the goal of completing a review by 2022.
Short-term housing contracts possible solution for northern companies
Belliveau said the focus should be on hiring local workers for fast, "shovel-ready," short term housing contracts. That will help the government immediately create jobs and training opportunities in the communities, he said, while working toward improving housing conditions in the north.
"We know that small companies will be having cash flow issues and shortages of work due to COVID," Belliveau said. "Housing is a good option to put companies and people to work right now."
Paulie Chinna, the territory's housing minister, confirmed to CBC News that the territory will be providing over 100 units that were identified during the coronavirus pandemic for the territory's homeless.
More than half of these units will need to be renovated before they can accept tenants, Chinna said.
The N.W.T Housing Corporation has recently opened tenders for housing construction projects in Fort Smith, Fort Simpson and Hay River.
However, Rowe said focusing solely on short term housing contracts will not solve his company's woes in the future. Instead, he said there needs to be a shift into prioritizing northern companies for larger contracts.
Belliveau said their association runs a reverse job board for contract labourers looking for work this summer. Prospective employees can submit their information and it will be sent off to companies looking for workers.