Public servants to begin returning to Portage III towers next week
225 employees will head back to Gatineau, Que., office as part of pilot project
After a year and a half of working remotely, 225 employees from Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) will be returning next week to the Place du Portage III office complex in Gatineau, Que., and a handful of other sites in Ottawa.
Most public servants have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and federal office buildings in Ottawa-Gatineau have sat almost empty.
The wave of employees that will be returning next Tuesday as part of a pilot project make up just five per cent of the complex's total capacity.
CBC asked for more information from PSPC about how the rollout would work, but no details were available Thursday.
On Friday, Steven MacKinnon, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Public Services and Procurement, said he expected this trial to go well.
"We will take stock of this initiative and make decisions based on it," said MacKinnon.
MacKinnon said the department is taking a cautious and modest first step with this volunteer program.
"We will obviously continue to monitor this on a daily, if not hourly basis to make sure that the health and safety of our employees remains the number one priority," he said.
It's a project that has the support of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal public sector union — one that should be taken with caution, said regional executive vice-president Alex Silas.
"Let's take the time to do it right and make sure no one is at any unnecessary risk," Silas said.
'We'll take anything'
The employees' impending return is also a small bit of good news for downtown Gatineau businesses that have faced steep losses as civil servants worked from home.
"It's not much, but it's nice to know that the government is preparing a comeback in downtown Gatineau," said Annie-Pier Caron Daviault, director general of Vision Centre-Ville de Gatineau, the area's business improvement association.
For the downtown's businesses to stay afloat financially, they need civil servants to return to their offices and then patronize them two to three days a week, Caron Daviault said.
"I think we'll take anything at this stage, right? Any little piece of hope," said Véronique Rivest, who owns Soif, a wine bar a few blocks from the Portage office towers.
While her business is far enough away from the towers to not have to rely exclusively on the return of the federal workforce, Rivest says she's still grateful for the news of the pilot project.
"That definitely is a glimmer of hope."
While the return of civil servants is important in the short term, Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin expressed a degree of caution about the project.
"In the long term, some of them will never be back," he said. "So we have to change the [direction of] downtown Gatineau."