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Inuit Communities Feel Abandoned by Canada

Housing for Inuit Canadians has become a desperate situation as many people are forced to live below a healthy standard of living. The federal advocate for housing, Marie-Josee Houle, has called this a failure by every level of government in Canada. She describes the situation as a denial of human rights for Inuit Canadians. 

“The housing conditions that the Inuit inhabit are the direct result of colonialism and a staggering failure by successive federal, provincial and territorial governments over many decades,” Houle said in a news report. 

After travelling to communities in Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador in October 2022 to speak directly with the citizens, families told her they were living in overcrowded and dangerous conditions. Houle described some of what she saw as “deplorable” living conditions.  

“The level of distress cannot be understated, nor can the toll that being unhoused or precariously housed has on one’s physical, mental and emotional health.”  

While in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Newfoundland, Houle found that the rate of homelessness was four times higher than that of Toronto or Vancouver in 2022. In Nunavut, Houle found that many homes do not have access to clean drinking water or reliable heat or energy for their homes.  

President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. Aluki Kotierk said in a press conference held Monday that these issues coming to light now are nothing new for Inuit Canadians. “We live with it,” she said. 

Kotierk said she hopes that Canadians take these issues seriously and understand that inadequate housing can lead to a series of lasting social issues, including one’s likelihood of finishing school and ability to manage one’s mental health. This is especially pressing for young people. Poor living conditions may lead many to drop out of school or, in some instances, even take their own lives.

“Imagine if we were supported so that each of us could thrive and how much we would contribute to Canada as a whole,” Kotierk said. 

Housing for Inuit people is often in cramped, overcrowded spaces, rotating out of available spaces so that others have a place to sleep. The lack of adequate housing can leave people dealing with depression and anxiety about their future.  

North Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said in a statement Monday that “the lack of adequate and affordable housing across the North is unacceptable.

“Our government is committed to continuing the important work with our Indigenous and northern partners to tackle our colonial past and chronic underfunding of infrastructure and housing in the region by past governments of all stripes.” 

In 2019, the federal government recognized all Canadians’ rights to housing through the National Housing Strategy Act. This is when the parliament appointed a federal advocate to ensure the government maintains their promise to ensure all Canadians have access to adequate housing. The right to housing in Canada includes one’s right to privacy, availability of essential services and affordable housing options. For the Inuit, it also means having access to culturally relevant amenities. 

In 2022, the Liberal government set aside $845 million to help with the housing problems among Inuit communities. The three territorial governments were set to receive $150 million “to support affordable housing and related infrastructure,” according the Chrystia Freeland. “There is no silver bullet which will immediately, once and forever, make every Canadian a homeowner in the neighbourhood where they want to live.” 

In Nunavut, the average cost of a house in 2021 was $615,362. The average household income in Nunavut in 2020 was $87,950, where 30,865 people are Inuit (2021 census), approximately 84 per cent of the population. Nunavut has the highest proportion of Inuit Canadians and the most numerous overall Inuit population. 

These prices are comparable to much more densely populated provinces such as Alberta, where the average cost of a house in October 2023 was reported to be $455,891. To compare, the population of Alberta is approximately 4.3 million, while the population across the three territories is closer to 123,000 (40,232 in Yukon, 44,826 Northwest Territories and 38,780 in Nunavut, all reported in 2019). 

The cost of housing in Nunavut is lower than the national average, which exceeds $700,000 for a home. This figure is greatly affected by Ontario and British Columbia. A house in BC averages $966,530, while a house in Ontario averages $855,990. The combined population of the two provinces is over 19 million people, with over 14 million in Ontario alone. 

Notably, the average salary for someone living in Iqaluit is over $70,000 per person per year. While this far exceeds the national average for personal income -which in 2021 was $59,300- the population of Iqaluit in 2022 was approximately 8,500. For those living elsewhere in Nunavut, a high income is difficult to come by, contributing to the overall low average household income. 

The high cost of housing in Nunavut is intensified by the greater overall cost of living. Iqaluit remains one of the most expensive cities to live in Canada. The remoteness of the North forces the cost of rudimentary items to be sky-high compared to anywhere else in the country due to shipping and transport costs. Goods, produce, and other grocery items are brought in by boat or plane. While all Canadians have experienced an increase in the cost of living over the past year, remote locations are taking the hardest hit as these necessary products were already well above the average costs across the country. 

While reaching out to communities in Nunavut for her report on housing, Marie-Josee Houle found that heating a home in Rankin Inlet can cost as much as $500 per week in the coldest months. This is a cost that most Inuit Canadians in the region have difficulty affording. 

Public housing is an essential part of helping low-income households establish a sustainable living situation. In Nunavut, public housing is in short supply, and additional projects are slow in coming. According to the report Houle conducted in Pangnirtung Nunavut, a new building project hasn’t taken place in over a decade. In March 2022, public housing in the town had a wait list with over 120 families waiting for an affordable option to become available. Some families had been wait-listed for over ten years. Houle reported that people in Inuit communities are feeling abandoned by their government. 

With high costs of living, many households are forced to have multiple families living together. This reduces the overall cost for each individual while also creating an opportunity for child care within the home, which is another extremely high cost. Few work positions are available that would allow someone to afford a home for themselves. With a low population and very few major industries in the region, there is little opportunity for members of the community to advance their lives. Unemployment in Nunavut sits at over 16 per cent, 11 points higher than the national average. 

The report, and the purpose for its creation, is to encourage the Canadian government to invest heavily in our Inuit communities. Addressing this situation will be costly, but ignoring it will come at the cost of leaving many Inuit Canadians continuing to feel abandoned. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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