Criminal records a barrier to employment in N.W.T., says MLA

Tu Nedhé-Wıı̀lıı̀deh MLA Steve Norn says criminal records are a potential barrier to job applicants due to the high number of criminal convictions in the N.W.T.

Finance minister says criminal record checks may deter potential applicants

MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh Steve Norn asked Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek how people with criminal convictions can overcome employment barriers. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Each government job posting in the N.W.T. has a caveat — that applicants provide a "satisfactory criminal record check" if they want to be considered for a position. 

With high crime rates in communities, that requirement could be deterring potential applicants from seeking those jobs, said Tu Nedhé-Wıı̀lıı̀deh MLA Steve Norn. 

"I fully support anyone who has paid their debts to society who are genuinely trying to make strides to better themselves," he said in the legislature Wednesday. "Everyone deserves a second chance."

"I do support firm rules, though, when it comes to working with our vulnerable populations, and I don't expect that we stray from that," he said. 

Before politics, Norn worked closely with human resources at the mines. He found criminal records were a common barrier for potential applicants.

Many needed support getting pardons, he said. 

At the Legislative Assembly, Norn has been vocal about what he says are "glaring gaps" in the territory's hiring process, including direct appointments which impede "chances of Indigenous candidates from successful job competitions."

Norn pressed the justice minister on the territory's hiring practices and how people with criminal records can overcome these barriers.

"It should not be a barrier if one wants to work in our public service," he said, recognizing that certain positions will always warrant vulnerable sector checks.

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the government's assessment process only prevents an applicant from taking a job if the offence they are convicted of is related to the job duties.

Once someone is offered a position, they could be asked to return a criminal record check to be reviewed by a deputy minister.

If they do not get an offer as a result of their criminal record, an applicant has two days to raise their concerns with the deputy minister of human resources, the policy states.

The Government of the Northwest Territories conducts criminal record checks and in some cases, a vulnerable sector check. This is to keep clients and employees safe and to preserve public confidence, the website states. 

There are some positions where having no criminal record is a prerequisite, said Wawzonek. 

"Someone who may see that advertised wouldn't necessarily want to apply if they have a criminal record," she said.

"People may well feel shame around having a criminal record," she said, and encouraged people to use the federal record suspension process. 

The cost of seeking a record suspension (formerly known as a pardon) will go up to $657 by March 31st. In 2010, it cost an applicant $50 to seek a record suspension.

"I very much want to emphasize that people can get criminal record suspensions and that often is a tool that is not adequately used by many who have past criminal records," she said. 

Getting a record suspension can be a costly and time-consuming process.

Update laws to prevent discrimination in all hiring: commissioner 

N.W.T. Human Rights Commissioner Charles Dent says under the Human Rights Act, people with pardons for offences unrelated to a job duty are protected under the territorial government's hiring policies, but there are gaps for those applying to other workplaces in the N.W.T.

"Right now people can be screened out whether the conviction is related to the job or not. We don't think that's the way to go," he said.

Dent said in at least one report the commission recommended the Human Rights Act be updated to prohibit this type of screening, unless the conviction affects someone's ability to perform a job. 

"Our argument is a lot of people in the North … don't even apply for a job because they haven't figured out how to get a record suspension. It's not something that's easy to do," he said.

"We want northerners to be able to get jobs," he said. "We know that a lot of people in the N.W.T. don't have access to someone who can help them through the process of getting a record suspension."

The legislation also doesn't explicitly prohibit discrimination against those with criminal records who have not received a suspension. 

At public meetings, some residents have told the commission they face barriers to employment even if the conviction is not related to the job they are applying for. 

Defence lawyer Paul Falvo said people are held back from seeking record suspensions because of burdensome wait times, costs, and requirements to prove the suspension will provide a measurable benefit.

They also state they cannot get employment because of their conviction.