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Housing in Crisis in Canada’s Northern Inuit Territories

A severe housing shortage in Canada’s Inuit communities underpins many complicated social problems, as a new Senate report testifies. The problem is so costly that policymakers are tempted to ignore the seemingly intractable issue.

Written by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Three people live in this this improvised shack in Igloolik, Nunavut, because there is not enough room in the main house.The Senate of Canada

In northern Canada, many families are “one step away from homelessness” due to substandard homes, severe overcrowding and a lack of adequate housing, a March 2017 report by Canada’s Senate warns.

“They’ve had this situation for a number of years, but it’s acute now because, as the population is growing, the crowding becomes greater,” said Senator Lillian Dyck, who chairs the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, which authored the report.

We Can Do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat” describes an “acute housing crisis” that is putting the health and safety of Inuit communities in northern Canada at severe risk.

In Nunavik, in northern Quebec, more than half of all Inuit families live in overcrowded conditions, a reality that has far-reaching health, social and economic implications, the report states.

“Without having a safe home, nobody can do well. Everybody needs a safe home in order to do well because it affects every aspect of your life,” Dyck told Arctic Deeply.

She traveled with her colleagues to several communities in Inuit Nunangat – Inuit territories in Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Northwest Territories – during the fact-finding mission.

Many of the houses currently in use are of poor quality and don’t take into account the harsh weather conditions in northern Canada.

Sen. Lillian Dyck, chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, surveys a house in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (The Senate of Canada)

Sen. Lillian Dyck, chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, surveys a house in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (The Senate of Canada)

Dyck recalled visiting a small, three-bedroom house that housed 15 or 16 people. The floors were cluttered with the family’s belongings, and mattresses were set up on the floor for people to sleep on because there wasn’t enough room in the bedrooms, she said.

On another property, a family was living in a backyard shack built with materials gathered from the local dump, she said.

Many of the homes also had only one door, Dyck noted. Due to high humidity in the winter, that door often freezes shut, making it impossible to get out in case of a fire or if violence is occurring inside the home.

Diseases and health issues, such as tuberculosis, influenza, breathing problems and skin rashes, also spread quicker in overcrowded homes, and family members have more difficulty keeping themselves clean in a home where only one bathroom is shared by so many residents.

Tuberculosis is 250 times more likely to occur among Inuit than among non-Indigenous Canadians, the report states.

Poor housing can also impact education since it becomes difficult for youth to find a place to concentrate or do their homework in such crowded quarters, Dyck said.

Among more than a dozen recommendations, the report calls for the federal government to create a funding strategy to ensure that additional, stable and long-term funding is disbursed for housing in all four Inuit regions.

The government’s 2016 federal budget pledged $177 million over two years toward affordable housing in First Nations and Inuit communities. Of that, $8 million would go to the Yukon, $12 million to the Northwest Territories and $76.7 million to Nunavut.

Three Inuit regions would also see additional investments over two years: $50 million in Nunavik, $15 million in Nunatsiavut and $15 million in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the government stated.

The Northwest Territories Housing Corporation and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding in February to use that latter $15 million to build new social housing units in local communities.

In 2016–17, $5 million will go toward building a sixplex in Inuvik and a fourplex in Tuktoyaktuk, while plans for the remaining $10 million for 2017–18 have yet to be determined.

Housing units in Igloolik, Nunavut. (The Senate of Canada)

But witnesses told the Senate committee that federal funding levels remain too low to meet the demand for adequate housing and to cover the high costs of building, operating and maintaining homes in the North.

In Nunavut, for instance, it costs between $400,000 and $550,000 to build a housing unit, and another $26,000 to operate and maintain each one, the report states.

“Funding is a big part of it,” Dyck said, while acknowledging that focusing on “how many billions of dollars it’s going to take” sometimes makes people give up even before they begin to tackle the problem.

But she said that Ottawa could do better by making sure that funds go directly to agencies working on social housing in Inuit communities. This has already been implemented in some of the Inuit regions, the report found.

In Nunavik, for example, the Makivik Corporation manages funding for housing under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

The Nunatsiavut government, meanwhile, receives federal funding directly “for the provision of programs and services, including housing,” under the land claims agreement.

Still, the report showed that federal funding in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is declining, and Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation funding for social housing in the Northwest Territories is projected to dry up completely by 2036–37.

“If you don’t have social housing, then what are you going to do? Someone else is going to pick up the tab,” Dyck said.

She added that, ultimately, many Inuit feel their voices aren’t being heard, and they want their concerns to be taken into account in the decision-making process.

“Virtually every community we went to said nobody is listening to the local people telling them what [they] need. So, they actually need to listen to the local housing authorities and ask them … what kind of housing should be built,” she said.

“Once people are given control over their own lives, then things do improve.”

Inukjuak in northern Quebec. (The Senate of Canada)

Inukjuak in northern Quebec. (The Senate of Canada)

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