Social workers speak out
Directors, students try to raise awareness

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Oct 08/99) - Nuelle Novik is worried.

As co-ordinator of the social work program at Aurora College in Inuvik and president of the union of social workers, Novik says she's happy the government is beginning to address the current crisis in the health-care system but argues that making efforts to recruit and retain nurses in the North is not enough.

"I applaud the government for dealing with that," she said. "But want to make it clear that the territory is moving toward the same crisis in social work."

Novik said the Inuvik region is currently facing a social worker shortage -- with two vacancies in Aklavik and another in Fort McPherson, as well as two in nearby Fort Good Hope.

Novik said working conditions and compensation levels are making social work less attractive than other fields, and that there are also vacancies in the social work programs at the college. She said there are currently five students enrolled in the first of a two-year program in Inuvik and eight others between Inuvik and Fort Smith who are taking the social-work access program -- a pilot project designed to give them the skills they need to enter the main social work program.

She said that by June just three students had graduated in the social work program from an original class of 17.

"We would certainly be prepared to take more students, but have also had to screen some out," she said. "Part of the struggle is that we have to maintain standards."

Of the three graduates, Novik said one is already working in the communities, one returned to Yellowknife and the third is pursuing graduate studies in Saskatchewan.

When the minister's health and social services forum passed through Inuvik last month, it heard social workers speak of the vacancies, of burnout and other factors that make their professional and personal lives difficult.

For the students currently attending Aurora College, however, these considerations, while intimidating, weren't enough to keep them from pursuing what they see as the worthy and rewarding field of social work.

Rita, a student who was reluctant to give her full name, said social work has suffered in the amalgamation of the health and social services departments.

"Why are nurses receiving more benefits," she asked, "when it's the same department and nurses and social workers are seeing the same patients?"

Rita also argued that most social workers in the North come from the North while most medical staff come from the south, and because of that, those social workers have a better understanding of what's happening in the communities.

"Social workers have been pushed aside and are feeling frustrated," she said.

Novik said these and related issues were discussed last week at the social workers' annual general meeting in Fort Smith, as well as at a public meeting hosted by MLA Floyd Roland on Tuesday night.

Roland said the situation in social work hasn't reached the level of crisis as with health care. Also, with education feeling the pinch, the territory's social workers are still facing an uphill battle.