Inuit Housing : a Social Determinant of Health

By Kaya Bellaar Spruyt, Rebekah Selman, & Brianna Stevenson

The health impacts for Inuit living in over crowded and poorly maintained housing in Northern communities present common challenges for Inuit community members. Recognizing over crowding as a social determinant of health for Inuit peoples however is not common. Over the past decades Inuit communities have been repeatedly moved around, neglected and mistreated by non-Indigenous governing bodies in the name of economic development and different media coverage recognizes this history differently.For those living the experience of poor housing, derailing the discussion to focus on the reasons behind the intergenerational trauma is avoided and Indigenous sources are instead calling for specific steps to be taken.

In a 25 year action plan, there is $382 million dollars put aside for “housing, health, education, culture and reducing the high cost of living in the north” (Montreal Gazette, 2014, para. 15). According to the Plan Nord, the federal Government plans to build 90 new homes in Nunavik between 2015 and 2020. 70 of these homes will be public while 20 will be private (Government du Quebec, 2014; Rogers, 2015b). According to Rogers (2015b), out of the 70 public homes in Nunavik, there will be “60 two-bedroom homes and 10 units allocated to elders” (para. 11). The Government acknowledges that in Nunavik, the homes are overcrowded (Government du Quebec, 2014; Rogers, 2015a) but does not acknowledge that these units are vastly inadequate for addressing the housing crisis. More funding is needed to build adequate housing (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., 2001; Kleer, 2012).

Media coverage of this lack of funding and housing crisis has followed two paths. One is informed by local experiences and the other is informed by outside perspectives. Much of the discussions in non-Indigenous media about social issues in the North fall back on relating these realities community members experience today with past traumas due to colonial policy, thereby disassociating non-Indigenous persons from the current situation (CBC News, 2010, Aariak, 2013). The media coverage from alternative Indigenous sources or local news sources are much more informed and demand specific actions be taken to address these issues (Rogers, 2011).

In Nunavik, where overcrowding is a known problem (Nunatsiaq News, 2014), Inuit communities are still waiting on the new houses Ottawa has responsibility to build to relieve over crowding, after 40 years since the signing of  the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (Nunatsiaq News, 2014) . It is also argued that there needs to be an understanding of what priorities need to be met regarding Inuit housing. Certain people get priority when receiving housing.

In the 1950’s, following the Inuit being relocated (Rogers, 2011) the federal government started putting Inuit communities into permanent housing.  Rapid population growth over the past decades has resulted in a shortage of housing, overcrowding, and social and health problems. For instance, overcrowding can cause the spread of diseases like Shigellosis, Hepatitis A, and tuberculosis (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., 2001).

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (2001) reported many issues such as:

Family violence, self-destructive acts, high school dropout rates, substance abuse, and overall decrease in physical health standards that have had such a devastating effect on Inuit communities. ITC believes that these problems are directly exacerbated by the fact that Inuit live in the most overcrowded conditions in the country. (pp. 2)

Moreover, the lack of privacy is said to be linked to “family violence, poor self-esteem and problems at school” (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., 2001, pp. 6). Poor insulation combined with the cold weather can create mould, which causes respiratory problems and contributes to the prevalence of tuberculosis.

Not only does this demonstrate bad faith in terms of negotiations and agreements between governing bodies, but also a disregard for the value of Indigenous lives. The health and livelihoods of Inuit persons is being impacted. Booming birthrates over the past decade (CBC News, 2010) have exacerbated these already serious health impacts.

One theme recognized by both outside media coverage and local opinion is a concern for the next generation of Inuit. Inuit youth, their health and supporting their success in school is brought up in connection with media coverage of the Inuit housing crisis (Aariak, 2013). The physiological impacts of living in overcrowded housing is being recognized but impacts on education are being discussed as having bigger, more long term effects on the prosperity of Inuit communities (Aariak, 2013, Rogers, 2011).

Given the severity of the impacts and the slow government response the Inuit have launched several research and lobbying activities to address the housing crisis. The research that has most recently been conducted that has been successful at empowering demands for addressing the housing crisis was done by Inuit organizations themselves (Inuit Tuttarvingat, 2011). One of the biggest problems indicated by this research was the gaps in information that would serve to support demands for funding. Inuit community members are now demanding that further research be conducted as a method for addressing the housing crisis (Rogers, 2011).

The Nunavik Inuit have also taken the opportunity to address the housing crisis by lobbying in the context of consultations for the Plan Nord. Unfortunately, the initial targets established in 2011 have be considerably reduced in the new version of Plan Nord relaunched in 2015.

Building houses in Inuit communities can take years. In that time, the existing houses are in desperate need of repair (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., 2001). According to Kleer (2012), it is the responsibility of the landlord to repair the houses. However, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (2001) argue that there is high cost to own a house, therefore most people rent. These experiences of overcrowding and poor living conditions are quite common but creating the resources to address the issue is proving to be a slow, difficult and unfair responsability for Inuit community members.

References:

Aariak, E. (2013). Eva Aariak: Don’t let simple solutions fail our students. National Post.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (2001). Research and Consultation project concerning Inuit housing across Canada: Final Report/Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. Ottawa: CA: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

CBC News, (2010). Nunavik housing shortage a ‘crisis’: Inuit.

Inuit Tuttarvingat, (2011). If Not Now… When? Addressing the Ongoing Inuit Housing Crisis in Canada. National Aboriginal Health Organization.

Government du Quebec. (2014)

Kleer, O. (2012). Aboriginal Law Handbook. Toronto, CA: Carswell.

Montreal Gazette (2014, July 10). Quebec enters ‘new era’ as partners ink Plan Nord deal. Montreal Gazette.

Nunatsiaq News, (2014). Stress caused by overcrowding makes Nunavik Inuit sick: study.

Roger, S. (2015a, September 28). Liberal candidate touts housing, relations with Aboriginal groups.

Rogers, S. (2015b, September 18). Nunavik housing talks on hold ahead of federal election.

Rogers, S. (2011). Overcrowded housing crippling the North’s future: report.