Locking out the public at Elijah Smith

Locked doors at the Yukon's federal building signal it is now under the management of a Quebec-based multinational. "I tried to get in the back door yesterday, but it was locked," said a longtime employee on Thursday.

Locked doors at the Yukon’s federal building signal it is now under the management of a Quebec-based multinational.

“I tried to get in the back door yesterday, but it was locked,” said a longtime employee on Thursday.

SNC-Lavalin ProFac was awarded the property management contract for the Elijah Smith Building on August 1st.

The corporate construction giant has offices in 30 countries and is working in 100 different countries around the world.

In 2004, SNC-Lavalin was given a $1.5-billion property management contract to maintain 319 federal buildings across Canada.

Its recent property management contract for the Elijah Smith Building is not part of that deal.

SNC-Lavalin is taking over a lot of federal buildings across the country, said Elijah Smith commissionaire Michael Roy, when asked about the recent changes.

SNC-Lavalin’s decision to lock the back door was made “to control access,” he said.

The multinational is also planning to shut down the public bathrooms and take out the public phone, said Roy, confirming reports the News received from other disgruntled employees.

“We have no concrete plans to make any substantial changes,” said ProFac property service co-ordinator Shannon Wiffen on Wednesday.

“We haven’t made any decisions,” she said.

Wiffen was in Whitehorse to “familiarize” herself with the building and “meet the tenants.”

But, being new to the company, she was unwilling to answer many questions.

Call assistant facility manager Kim Isaacs, said Wiffen, giving a BC number.

Isaacs refused to comment on the changes being made at the Elijah Smith Building.

“You have to call facility manager Shelly Lindsey,” said Isaacs, giving out another BC number.

After leaving two voicemail messages, Lindsey called back the next day.

“You need to talk to our communications person, Gillian MacCormack,” she said, citing a Montreal number.

MacCormack called back to say a news release is coming out next week and she’ll take questions then.

“We’ve been making jokes about (the new company),” said an Elijah Smith employee.

“There’s a number posted up that says if you have any problems call Ottawa or something.

“Before, we just used to call the guys in the basement.”

Tom Sparrow, former Yukon director of Public Works and Government Services, Canada, used to manage the building.

During his tenure, the Elijah Smith Building was transformed in a model of green practices.

“Everything we do today operationally, one way or another, we look at the environment,” said Sparrow in an earlier interview with the News.

“Even though the building was built in ‘92, we are putting money into the building every year – investing in the building based on new technology that wasn’t available at that time,” he said.

After installing compost bins that even swallow up used paper towels in the bathrooms, Elijah Smith cut its garbage by 75 per cent, said Sparrow.

And a transformed oil drum in the basement, known as the Bulb Eater, allows for the non-toxic disposal of the building’s highly efficient fluorescent lights.

Air conditioning is room specific, so energy isn’t wasted, and a carpet in the lobby, made of recycled and recyclable material, is actually comprised of many squares – so only one square can be replaced, rather than a whole swath, if it is ripped or dirty.

Sparrow also had an electric boiler installed in the building, with backup oil if Yukon Energy’s grid is overloaded.

Finally, there’s a row of bicycles leaning against a wall in the lobby – provided by the Yukon government to give employees a fossil-fuel-free alternative to zipping around town to meetings.

With a koi pond, a giant Yukon-inspired mural and plants lining the lobby, the Elijah Smith Building is a pleasant place to sit.

The greenery and openness of the atrium serve as a sanctuary for hundreds of city dwellers who suffer cabin fever during the winter, said Sparrow.

“Government buildings can often be quite sterile, we believe in a community-minded building,” he said.

But Sparrow’s no longer with Public Works, he’s in Prince George helping to build a hospital, said a receptionist on Thursday.

And SNC-Lavalin, contracted to cut costs, may have a different focus.

Removing the public toilets, the public phone, and limiting access by locking doors, suggest that a “community-minded building” is not SNC-Lavalin’s first priority.

“I used to work in that building as a senior federal executive,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

“And if they are actually planning to get rid of the public washroom and the public phone, I think that’s ridiculous,” he said.

“We’re one of the wealthiest countries on Earth – there’s no reason our government building shouldn’t have a public bathroom.”

And getting rid of the public phone would create a whole host of problems, said Bagnell.

“What if someone came in from the communities to meet with a bureaucrat and find out they need more information, and they need to go to a phone and call home?” he said.

“That’s the exact opposite of providing services.”

Until Harper’s government, the federal government has tried to be more user-friendly and service-oriented, said Bagnell.

“And these are steps backwards, including closing the back door.”

Bagnell appreciates the need to cut costs.

“But are they saving money on the backs of Yukoners by reducing services, like a phone and a washroom?” he said.

Liberal Public Works critic Martha Finley shared similar fears.

“We’re actually concerned in terms of what’s happening at Public Works,” said Finley from Toronto. “On the one hand we have a government saying it wants to sell assets, but we also have a federal government out spending money like crazy.”

Harper was just up in the Yukon, making a huge spending announcement – $71 million for the Mayo B project, said Finley.

“So he’s making these big, dare I say, politically motivated, we-might-be-having-an-election kind of announcements, but then he’s quietly cutting back on funding.

“And nobody argues against reducing waste, but not if it reduces public services that are needed in the community.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com