AG’s June 2013 warning a wake-up call for Nunavut on school, daycare safety
Education, CGS departments map out plan in time for auditor’s visit
Nunavut MLAs found they had the Office of the Auditor General of Canada to thank for pushing the territorial government to save Nunavut’s schools and childcare facilities from failing to meet safety standards.
“All these safety issues have been ongoing, from a long time ago,” Joe Savikataaq, MLA for Arviat South, said April 3 at a hearing of the legislative assembly’s standing committee on oversight of government operations.
“It appears that it took a letter from the Auditor General to get the fire going and get the stuff done, and it didn’t take long to get done,” he said with a hint of astonishment.
Savikataaq and fellow committee members, all regular MLAs, questioned the deputy ministers of two key government departments about the Auditor General’s report on safety in Nunavut schools and daycares.
The Assistant Auditor General of Canada, Ronnie Campbell, was also on hand to explain details of the report.
The MLA for Arviat South pointed to a warning letter that the Office of the Auditor General sent in June 2013 to the departments responsible for safety in schools and childcare facilities.
Sent while the audit was underway, the letter alerted the Department of Education and the Department of Community and Government Services about the dire state of safety in schools and childcare facilities.
“The letter was just issued in June, and most of the stuff is [already] up to date,” Savikataaq said. “I can see they have a work plan here of who’s responsible, and they have a time frame.”
Communications between deputy ministers Kathy Okpik of education and Roy Green of CGS appeared to be “open and good” at the hearing, he said.
The audit suggested this wasn’t the case before June 2013, Savikataaq said, pointing to a lack of clarity about who is responsible for ensuring the safety of schools and childcare facilities, which contributed to the government’s failing grades in the audit.
“I just hope that the line of communications and everything else goes well from now on.”
Released in Nov. 19, the Auditor General’s report found that neither of the departments followed procedures on fire safety inspections for schools and childcare facilities.
The audit also found the Department of Education was not conducting evacuation drills, and had allowed some daycare facilities to operate without a license.
At the day-long hearing before the standing committee, Okpik and Green described corrective measures and action plans their departments have adopted since late 2013 to cover all deficiencies noted in the auditor general’s report.
“The recommendations in the auditor general’s report have given us clear direction on what measures we need to take to support the well-being of our students and children,” Okpik told the committee on behalf of her department, in her opening statement.
MLAs centred many of their questions on childcare facilities.
Pat Angnakak, MLA for Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu, led these questions off by asking Campbell why his office decided to conduct an audit on the safety of these facilities.
Campbell replied that the audit grew out of an examination of Nunavut’s compliance with the Education Act.
“When we started to realize that there was significant non-compliance on safety issues related to schools, we also then asked the question of the daycare facilities,” Campbell said.
“When we started to see that inspections were not being done, and there was no evidence of follow-up, we took the decision to embark on a separate audit.”
The daylong hearing on the auditor general’s safety report followed a two-day session on the original audit, Education in Nunavut, held April 1 and April 2.
The report found that several childcare facilities operated under a “letter of permission” between 2009 and 2013.
This allowed childcare facilities — including daycares, day homes, preschools and after-school programs — to operate “until an inspection could occur and a license could be issued,” the report said.
Such letters are illegal, the report noted.
The Department of Education stopped issuing them after it received the letter of warning June 2013, and licensed all facilities that followed lawful norms, Okpik said.
“We were not following regulations,” Okpik admitted to the standing committee.
The department was mistakenly following old regulations that existed under the Northwest Territories, before Nunavut was created, and the audit highlighted the mistake, she said.
Okpik clarified that childcare facilities are not run by the government, but by non-profit “daycare societies,” which uphold safety norms set by the Department of Education.
The department regulates safety of the facilities through licenses, which are granted for two-year terms, she said.
Each must pass safety inspections to qualify, and undergo inspections every 10 months according to the Child Day Care Act.
Asked whether her department had noticed safety deficiencies in schools and childcare facilities before the auditor general’s report, Okpik said they were concerned about “some of the big repair items,” such as boiler and flooring replacements.
Replacement and maintenance work on these are the responsibility of CGS.
CGS’s deputy minister said his department was aware that it needed to improve on “preventive maintenance” in government-owned buildings, and that the department needed to strengthen its policies and procedures.
“Prior to the audit, we were already committed to set a management guideline to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of client departments,” Green said.
Fire inspections were lagging in the period of the audit due to vacancies in two regional fire marshal positions — one in the Kitikmeot, and another in the Baffin region, he said. These have since been filled.
Campbell concluded by saying the two departments’ quick willingness to conform to the Auditor General’s report was a good sign.
He underlined the importance of paperwork to document safety inspections and drills.
“It’s really important [government] officials document, to show what they’ve done, so they can be accountable,” Campbell said.
“It’s not just paperwork when you have an obligation to make sure things are fixed and safe.”