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National

Ottawa to launch ‘pay experiments’ as next step to replace Phoenix pay system

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OTTAWA — The federal government could soon revert to using multiple pay systems to replace the Phoenix system it adopted more than three years ago in a costly, failed attempt to streamline how it pays its employees.

The government announced Wednesday that it had formally picked three vendors to experiment in the coming months with possible replacements for Phoenix, which has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars since it went live more than three years ago.

Treasury Board President Joyce Murray said Ceridian, SAP and Workday will develop and test human-resources and pay-system pilot projects — and that more than one of them could ultimately be awarded contracts to build human-resources and pay systems for the government’s 300,000 workers.

More than half of those employees have been — and continue to be — directly affected by problems with the Phoenix system, being overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has in the past, Murray blamed the previous Conservative government for handing the Liberals a pay system that was “doomed from the start.”

“There was no pilot testing (of Phoenix) when it was rolled out,” Murray told reporters.

The Conservatives have maintained that, while they signed onto Phoenix prior to the last election, it was a Liberal government decision to launch it before it was properly tested.

For several months, the government has been working with pay-system suppliers to see which one could replace Phoenix.

The three approved vendors will spend until the end of this year building and testing pilot systems, using real-time data from government departments, to prove their systems can properly incorporate the myriad, complex rules that govern how civil servants are paid.

Murray said it is possible that more than one of the vendors could be chosen.

At least one civil-service union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, supported such a move.

“All we ever wanted out of this is a working pay system and if that’s working pay systems, we’re OK with that, too,” said PIPSC president Debi Daviau, whose organization has been working with the government to find a replacement for Phoenix.

“I think there’s actually some opportunities that we would be missing if the government were to say we’re limiting ourself to one choice at this point.”

Daviau said some departments are already running their own pay software that, should it be adapted or expanded, could meet the pay needs of other departments.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, by far the largest federal civil-service union in the country with about 140,000 members, expressed disappointment in the announcement, saying it brings federal employees no closer than they were a year ago to being paid properly.

“To me (the announcement) was a simple photo op and a little bit of election campaigning going on,” said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.

While the government has slowly whittled down the number of pay errors it’s been dealing with, the government pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of pay cases totalling 239,000 at the end of last month.

The Harper Conservatives projected the Phoenix system would save taxpayers $70 million annually by streamlining the government’s multiple, antiquated pay programs.

Shortly after it was launched in early 2016, however, serious shortcomings in the system created massive problems across dozens of government departments.

The cost of stabilizing Phoenix — and searching for a replacement system — is now estimated to have surpassed $1.1 billion.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has also projected overall costs could rise to $2.6 billion by the time Phoenix is eventually shut down, which could take four years.

Heading toward a fall election, the Trudeau Liberals have been wary of putting an overall price cap on fixing the pay problem, nor are they any longer predicting how long it will take.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press


National

Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

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OTTAWA — Zuhair Alshaer spends most of his day editing articles and organizing interviews with politicians for his Ottawa-based Arab Canada newspaper, to introduce Arabic-speaking new Canadians to federal politics.

The community Alshaer’s paper serves is growing — more immigrants are arriving in Canada from Africa, Asia and the Middle East than ever before, surpassing Europe that was once the dominant source.

And it is also becoming more politically engaged: The voting rate of immigrant from West Central Asia and the Middle East increased to 73 per cent in the 2015 election from the 57 per cent recorded four years earlier, the largest increase among the 10 immigrant regions studied by Statistics Canada.

For Alshaer, and other ethnic media outlets, all his efforts are aimed at helping Arabic-speaking new Canadians kick isolation and get involved in politics.

“We’re trying to encourage our audience to integrate,” he said. “We show them how important is to participate in politics.”

Research published by Statistics Canada in 2016 highlighted that new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population. Their numbers are likely to increase in the coming years: Statistics Canada projects the proportion of foreign-born individuals who immigrated to Canada could reach between 25 per cent and 30 per cent by 2036.

Alshaer, a Palestinian immigrant who came to Canada 20 years ago, is hoping that his monthly newspaper, launched three years ago, will connect his community with federal politics, so more people cast a ballot on Oct. 21.

“We should believe that Canada is our country and behave accordingly,” he said.

The most recent issue of his newspaper, published earlier this month, included an op-ed signed by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and an extended interview with Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who are seeking re-election in their respective Ottawa-area seats.

“We worked on building trust between our audience and the politicians and candidates,” said Alshaer, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “We don’t have any affiliation with any candidate or political party.”

But newcomers from countries with no established democratic traditions is an obstacle that makes participating in Canadian politics more challenging. Research has also shown that lower-income individuals — a group that includes newcomers — may not see voting as a priority for because they are more focused on more immediate concerns, adding another obstacle.

“A lot of newcomers, in the first few years, are facing tremendous anxiety and challenges when it comes to economic and social integration,” said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family and immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago.

Statistics Canada data show that turnout rates for established immigrants, defined as those who lived in the country for at least 10 years, was a few points higher in 2015 than recent immigrants.

Overall, turnout rates were up by 14.4 percentage points in 2015 compared to the 2011 election, Statistics Canada said, with above-average increases recorded for newcomers from West Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Getting used to the idea of voting “takes a few years for newcomers to wrap their heads around it,” Algabra said. He added it was important to explain to new Canadians that the outcomes of the election “will have an immediate impact on their lives” and each outcome could mean different things to different people.

A few of the volunteers with Algabra’s re-election campaign are newcomers. Some don’t even have their permanent residency or citizenship, but are “excited about living in a country with a society that encourages participation and democratic practices,” Algabra said.

“I’ve also seen a group of newcomers who are extremely excited about earning their Canadian citizenship,” Alghabra said. “They are really keen on not only voting, but also participating in democratic process.”

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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National

Saskatchewan abandons commitment to improve northern airport after crash: chief

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Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation

REGINA — A chief of a remote Saskatchewan First Nation says the province’s decision not to help improve an airport runway in his community while doing so in a city outside Regina shows racism.

Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation says the province is abandoning its commitment to develop the runway near his isolated northern reserve.

He says the airport is in poor condition and the runway needs to be expanded. He’s been pushing for changes since one person died and nine were seriously injured following a plane crash there in December 2017.

Lori Carr, minister of government relations, says the province didn’t receive a completed application for the project.

She says officials requested in June that the First Nation hand in a full application, but it was not done.

“It should not come down to an application,” Mercredi told a news conference in Regina on Thursday.

“I have told my people that we are getting a runway upgraded so the province (has) created a liar. I’ve lied to my people.”

Mercredi said the province was almost done with the design of the project. He says the First Nation submitted an application in March, but it was incomplete because staff lacked technical expertise.

He wants the province to help finish the application and fund the project, since the government committed to doing so.

“Now that I’ve found out a Moose Jaw airport application was also late and that was accepted by the province, what is going on here?” he said.

“Are they just supporting their ridings? What I’m seeing is racism here.”

“This airport is the only access point for many northern communities and the fact that needed improvements still haven’t been made is ridiculous,” said Opposition infrastructure critic Buckley Belanger.

A runway expansion for Moose Jaw was one of nearly 30 projects the province brought to the federal government in a request for infrastructure funding, which has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between Saskatchewan and Ottawa.

The Saskatchewan NDP said the government has been engaged in “partisan finger-pointing” over infrastructure funding.

Mercredi said he has sent about a dozen letters to the provincial government seeking updates to his proposal and was under the impression the province was still committed to paying for runway improvements.

“Still ’til today no response.”

He said he learned through a news report that the runway wasn’t a priority for the province.

Deputy premier Gord Wyant has said the upgrades are not a priority for the government this budget year.

“What is more important than human lives?” Mercredi asked.

“What kind of government is this when they prioritize landfills before human lives?”

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said applications shouldn’t be the issue and the province should focus on safety.

Mercredi said the Fond du Lac runway isn’t safe for larger aircraft, so people are transported on smaller planes and their flights are consistently delayed.

As well, he said, most of their food is flown in and that’s fallen behind due to having to downsize the planes being used.

Carr said Fond du Lac’s existing runway is safe and the Transportation Safety Board didn’t find the airstrip contributed to the 2017 crash.

The safety board said in a report in December that the pilot of the plane took off despite noticing ice on the aircraft during a pre-flight inspection.

The board said people using remote, northern airports are at substantial risk because of a lack of proper equipment for de-icing planes.

The federal government announced in February that it was spending $12 million for safety upgrades at the airport.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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