In 2014, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness released Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada: A Literature Review. One of the recommendations coming out of the literature review was a call for future studies not to homogenize the Indigenous population of Canada, and pointed out to the dearth of research focusing on colonial relations between Indigenous Peoples and governments. Considering these critiques of the existing literature on Indigenous Peoples’ homelessness, I will try to touch on some of these aspects within the constraints of a blog entry.
Nunavut’s population reached 37,146 residents in 2016; Iqaluit is the largest community with more than 6,669 people as of 2011. Nunavut has the highest population growth than any other province or territory in Canada mostly due to high birth rates rather than immigration and/or inter-provincial/territorial migration. A third of its population is under the age of 15, and 64% is between the ages of 15 to 64. Inuit represent 85.4% of the total population of the territory and 45.5% of the total Inuit population in Canada. With a median age of 24 years, Canada’s newest territory has a young and rapidly growing Inuit population. Yet, the needs are great. Nunavut has the lowest socio-economic outcomes than any other province or territory. In 2011, high school graduation rates stood at 35% - shockingly low considering the 85% Canadian average for that same year. The unemployment rate as of January 2017 was 12.5%, almost twice as high as the 6.8% national average. The median income ($24,868) is lower than the national average ($29,878) and because of the high cost of living, the average Nunavummiut is considered poorer than most other Canadians. In 2013, 41.1% of Nunavut residents relied on social assistance. These combined factors make Nunavummiut at higher risk of becoming homeless, living in overcrowded conditions or staying in dangerous housing situations.
Within the homeless and precariously housed population, the 2010 Nunavut Housing Survey found that 1,220 Nunavummiut were experiencing homelessness and revealed that 4,230 dwellings out of a total of 9,400 did not meet minimum housing standards. Half of Inuit homes are overcrowded and/or in need of major repairs. Nunavut’s 2014 point-in-time count found 98 people living in shelters or in places not meant to be housing. Some other findings include:
- 57% of survey respondents identified as male and 43% as women.
- 30% of shelter respondents reported staying at the shelter with their children.
- The average age of respondents was 38 but about 1/3 were youth between the ages of 18 and 29.
- 69% of respondents grew up in the community that they were currently living in.
History of Housing Provision
In order to understand the high rates of homelessness and overcrowding in Nunavut, we must trace back the Government of Canada’s colonial relationship with Inuit People. Inuit People had contact with European settlers since the 15th century mostly through their central role in the fur trade industry. However, most Inuit continued living a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle until the 1960s when the Canadian government started establishing permanent settlements across Canada’s North. With the increasing number of federally administered permanent settlements, Inuit experienced added pressures and were forced to assimilate into Western culture by taking up wage employment for sustenance, moving into state-sponsored housing and sending their Inuit children to residential schools or federal hostels. As a response to the colonial attacks against their traditional livelihoods and self-determination, Inuit leaders formed a number of associations in order to negotiate land claim agreements that called for their self-determination, governance over Inuit land and social provisioning. In 1982, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Keewatin Inuit Association, and the Baffin Regional Inuit Association formed the umbrella organization Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut and collectively negotiated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement signed in 1993. With this, Inuit achieved greater self-governance, stewardship of their lands and resources while splitting with the Canadian government the responsibilities over health care, education, economic development and housing.
Traditional Inuit homes were portable to fit their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Yet, the first houses that the federal government built in the 1960s were plagued with problems from extremely high cost of construction and maintenance issues due to their sizes, poor quality materials, inadequate designs, and overall a low supply. As Inuit families were forced into permanent settlements, overcrowding became a serious concern by the mid-70s. And while a number of housing initiatives have been implemented by different agencies, housing problems worsened overtime. This violent uprooting from traditional Inuit life and forceful assimilation strategies have led to the high rates of homelessness, overcrowding, couch surfing, tent as well as shack and car living across Nunavut.
In 2004, Nunavut Tunngavik and the Government of Nunavut (GN) put a proposal forward to the federal government for $1.9 billion to address housing and homelessness over a period of 10 years. Five years ago, the demand for housing in Nunavut stood at 4,000 units, each costing $275,000 to build not including maintenance costs or electricity which would inflate this figure significantly more. As part art of the 2013 GN’s housing and homelessness strategy, the GN and housing authorities will continue to work with the federal government on this issue. Earlier this year, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) submitted its response the federal government’s Canada-wide consultations for the development of a national housing strategy. ITK advocated for “direct Inuit access to federal housing investments” for affordable housing, affordable housing alternatives, shelters and transitional housing. No dollar amount was included in their response but it was clear that their interests lay on boosting the housing continuum beyond what Inuit communities have received thus far from the federal government including what has been made available through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS).
While very little has been written specifically on Inuit homelessness, the literature on colonialism, housing and poverty illustrates the unique realities of Nunavut including; the climate, the geographical remoteness, the lack of transportation infrastructure, the high costs of living, and most critically, the tragic aftermath of the colonial dispossession of Inuit traditions, culture, language and way of life. Today, the last point manifests itself through high poverty rates, food insecurity, violence, high unemployment rates, low educational attainment, disproportionate incarceration rates, poor mental health, intergenerational trauma, and high suicide rates. All of which are liked to Inuit homelessness either as a cause and/or barrier to obtaining adequate housing in the private rental and real estate market.
Researchers and advocates have connected the social realities, histories and experiences of Indigenous Peoples to the concept of home as a way of making better sense of the issue. The literature discusses Indigenous homelessness in terms of a cultural disconnection, involuntary uprooting and displacement from communities, a crisis of personal identity, colonial assimilation, the residential school system and child welfare legislation. My colleague Jesse Thistle is presently drafting on a definition of Indigenous homelessness and uncovering the notion of “home” beyond a physical structure over one’s head and a door to lock behind you. This research is paramount and very much needed if Canada is to prevent, reduce and eliminate Inuit homelessness by first understanding its multi-dimensional components in order to then establish coordinated responses that work.
Three major events are underway that could see improvements for Inuit living across the North.
First, the National Housing Strategy consultation report discussed Indigenous Peoples’ needs, their priorities, their desired outcomes and opportunities for housing. The report recognized the unique needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit as distinct Peoples with their own cultures, rights and relationships with the federal government. A section of the report was dedicated to housing in Canada’s northern and remote regions and survey respondents called for a number of actions including:
- Modernizing the social housing portfolio
- Addressing gaps in the housing continuum particularly in small communities
- Addressing the social housing operating agreements and expiring subsidies
- Applying a northern and remote community lens when developing policies, supports and programs
- Addressing overcrowding with suitable options and solutions
- Using building materials and construction techniques appropriate, sustainable and durable for the region
- Improving coordination and collaboration among all levels of government
While the actual National Housing Strategy remains to be seen, on February 9, Inuit leaders including Natan Obed from ITK and Aluki Kotierk from Nunavut Tunngavik with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett signed a new Agreement on Inuit-Crown body, and launched a new bilateral working group. Mr. Obed stated:
“The Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee will paly an important role as we take action on the priorities that matter to Inuit and Canadians. This committee will enhance cooperation between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the federal government, allowing us to give continue renewing the relationship between Inuit and the Crown in a sustainable and positive way.”
With improving access to appropriate and affordable housing as one of the primary objectives of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s 2016-2019 Strategy and Action Plan, this new Agreement may lead to future housing and social infrastructure developments not only in Nunavut but across Inuit regions.
Third and last, the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat is putting together an Advisory Committee of 8 to 10 members from across Canada to provide policy and program expertise and advice. Final membership will be announced later this spring. This could be an opportunity for greater Indigenous representation in HPS’ policy development process, and hopefully an Inuit leader present at the table advocating for the housing needs and rights of Nunavummiut.
- Inglutaasaavut (Our New Home): Neither “New” nor “Ours”: Housing challenges of the Nunavut Territorial GovernmentInuit: Fact Sheet for NunavutIf Not Now…When? Addressing the Ongoing Inuit Housing Crisis in Canada
- We Can Do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat
- Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami National Housing Strategy Submission
- The GN Long-Term Comprehensive Housing and Homelessness Strategy: Igluliuqatigiilauqta
- The Little Voices of Nunavut: A Study of Women’s Homelessness North of 60
- Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development
Image Credit: CBC News “Nunavut’s social housing faces billion-dollar shortfall”