Contractors warn of looming labour shortage

Cement glops out a long hose and into a deep, black hole in the ground that bristles full of steel bar.

Cement glops out a long hose and into a deep, black hole in the ground that bristles full of steel bar.

It’s a crisp Tuesday afternoon, and eight guys in orange hard-hats are finishing their task: lay a sturdy foundation upon which the new wing of the Whitehorse International Airport can stand.

By the end of today, several dozen of these holes will be plugged with cement, and the task will be done.

Work will then cease at the site.

No one knows when the rest of the terminal building will be erected.

Until three weeks ago, this construction site was expected to provide steady work to about 50 contractors over two years.

It was a boon for construction workers in Whitehorse, who usually face a slow season during the winter months.

Then, on September 15, a judge ordered a halt to the $15.7-million project.

The land onto which the cement glops belongs to Kwanlin Dun. And the First Nation argues the Yukon government has short-changed it of economic benefits it is owed under its land claim deal.

Until the legal spat is resolved, no carpenters, no electricians, no plumbers or roofers or other construction workers will work at the site.

“The timing is bad,” said Darrell Stone, president of the Yukon Contractors’ Association.

At least one construction company is wondering whether it may now have to lay off workers, he said.

“What do they do with them over the winter? They can’t keep them all,” he said. “These are people with families. It’s difficult.”

If contractors do leave the territory to find work elsewhere, this may leave the Yukon in a lurch for construction projects next spring — a season that is expected to be busier than usual, said Stone.

Work on a wastewater treatment plant for Dawson City and a new Whitehorse jail are both expected to begin at that time.

By then, the Yukon government may have trouble finding enough skilled tradespeople to do the work, said Stone.

“There are only so many people here,” he said. “There are only so many services they can provide. These companies can’t react to that. You can’t double your manpower size overnight.”

The legal dispute also raises fears among contractors — probably unfounded, said Stone — that the usual method of awarding contracts by public tender, in which work goes to the best bid, may be jeopardized in the future.

That ought to be a concern not only for contractors, but for all taxpayers, he said.

Tenders get “best bang for the buck” compared to sole-sourced contracts, he said.

“That’s got to stay,” said Stone.

Kwanlin Dun and the Yukon government alike are staying mum on the matter until it’s resolved in court.

But at the centre of the dispute is part of Kwanlin Dun’s land claim agreement called the Yukon Asset Construction Agreement. It states that when a construction project worth more than $3 million occurs on Kwanlin Dun territory, the First Nation must receive economic benefits “commensurate with the nature, scale, duration and cost” of the project.

The intent of this part of the land claim is to help the First Nation become economically self-sufficient.

In early September, the Yukon government offered Kwanlin Dun a deal that would include a $1-million contract, the training of one worker and a road contract.

Kwanlin Dun says that’s not good enough. It alleges the government has not negotiated in an honourable fashion.

Just what “commensurate” benefits are, in this case, will likely be decided by a trial judge.

There could be a lot more at stake than the livelihood of some Yukon tradespeople and the way in which public contracts are awarded.

Some fear the dispute may also prevent thousands of German tourists from pouring into the Yukon in coming years, and deprive the territory of an estimated $8.5 million spent by these visitors each year.

These fears are unfounded, said Rod Raycroft, Yukon Tourism’s manager of overseas marketing.

The airport expansion is largely driven by security requirements faced by Condor Air, which flies from Frankfurt to Whitehorse twice a week from May to October.

Its Boeing 767s also stop in Anchorage or Fairbanks. This means that strict US security rules apply to Condor planes when they stop in Whitehorse.

Passengers need to disembark while the plane is swept by security staff. And these passengers need somewhere to go.

Currently, they wait in trailers located beside the airport.

Condor has, in the past, threatened to pull its service to Whitehorse if security arrangements are not improved.

Condor representatives could not be reached for comment before press time.

But Raycroft, who recently spoke to Condor officials, said the airport expansion delays are no worry.

“There isn’t any concern with Condor,” he said. “I’ve talked to Condor many times, and there has been no indication by them there is any concern.”

The airline brought 4,744 passengers to the Yukon this summer, which is an increase of 89 passengers from last year, said Raycroft.

“Their season has gone great,” he said. “And they’re coming next year.”

Condor’s 2009 flight schedule is already online, he points out, and Whitehorse continues to be listed as a destination.

“They understand there are always going to be construction delays,” he said of Condor. “They are flying into airports globally. There are always going to be delays in construction at some point.”