Looking North

Housing in the Arctic

In the first of a series of podcasts with CBC's Ted Blades examining aspects of life in the Arctic, the challenges of building a house — and a home — are discussed.

'How does the house ... contribute to the fostering and rebuilding of these relationships?'

In Kuujjuaq, renting a private apartment can run $3,000 a month. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

This is the first of three Looking North podcasts from CBC's Ted Blades, inspired by the sounds and presentations from the 20th Biennial Inuit Traditions conference held in St. John's in October 2016.

A shift from the traditional nomadic lifestyle to bricks-and-mortar housing has impacted many facets of Inuit life. 

"When they moved together as groups to be near the trading posts in, say the 1950s, they still had this autonomy in owning their spaces," says Lisa Koperqualuk, an anthropologist at Laval University.

"Since government programs have come into place over the years, there is [now] a lot of social housing."

But, Koperqualuk argued, the available housing hasn't kept up with the demand — especially for certain subsets within the family unit.

"[There is] not a lot available for youth who might want to move out of their home … for Inuit women who might want to move out of their homes and make their own safe places with their children … or for newly married people who start having children," Koperqualuk said. 

"So there are quite a bit of challenges at that level."

Building for extremes

The type of housing isn't the only challenge, according to Patrick Evans, an architect and design professor at Universite du Quebec.

"Understanding variation, understanding how we move from a very cold season to a very warm season," he said. 

A couple in Arviat, Nunavut, have lived in the same two-bedroom public housing unit for 17 years with their 10 children. (Vincent Desrosiers/CBC)

Construction of a house in the North requires critical thinking and knowledge of the elements.

"If your house is poorly oriented, it's quite possible — with no trees in many regions of Inuit territory — you can have huge accumulations of snow, that can even block exit from the house. So snow and wind become really important for orientation," said Evans.

There also needs to be knowledge of the land, argues Bill Semple, an architect, builder, researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Alberta.

"The traditional home used to be orientated where it was for ease of hunting or for views to the land or water, I think that's extremely important," he said.

Concept image of new prototype housing design specifically for northern climates and Inuit culture, proposed by the Societe d'habitation du Quebec, the province's social housing agency. (Fournier, Gesrovitz, Moss, Drolet and Assoc. Architects)

Semple said a house isn't just a form of shelter, and that is especially true in the North. 

"I think one of the ways we need to think of housing is in terms of relationships, there is the relationship of the family and extended family. So how does the house — the design of the house, the interior of the house — contribute to the fostering and rebuilding of these relationships?"

Listen to the full Looking North: Housing in the Arctic podcast here.

For more On the Go podcasts, click here