Inuit leader hopes Senate housing report goes beyond 'shock and awe'

As Canadian senators begin their tour of Inuit communities, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed says he hopes their housing report will go look beyond the shocking numbers.

'Just because we are Inuit does not mean we are any less Canadian and any less worthy of these funds'

Senators Tobias Enverga Jr. and Nancy Greene Raine take a closer look at an Iqaluit public housing unit, as Barry Biggs and Jeani MacKenzie of the Iqaluit Housing Authority explain how mould was recently removed. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

As a group of seven senators begins a fact-finding mission about the Northern housing crisis, an Inuit leader says he hopes they'll see more than the "shock and awe" of the situation.

The numbers are easy to balk at: thousands of people on social housing wait lists; dozens of people piled into overcrowded homes; and an estimated price tag for addressing the problem in the billions. 

"I hope they would get beyond the shock and awe of the figures," said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. 

"If you think about how much money we need, just to get our overcrowding rates down to the Canadian average, we're talking about a $2-billion investment." 

But, he says even that wouldn't be enough. 

'We've talked about housing as a crisis for a generation now,' Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami told senators earlier this year. He says he hopes this week's trip will help the seven Senators better understand the scope of the problem. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

"That is just how big the issue is," he said. "Even if we threw $2 billion at Inuit housing today and we had all the capacity in our Inuit regions to immediately build all these houses in a short order, we would still have to think of the bigger picture of our growing population."

Communities in the four Inuit regions are growing at a pace that is well beyond the national average — and Obed says the number of homes being built each year doesn't even come close to meeting the demand.

'Mould is very prevalent'

Seven senators from across Canada are travelling to six Inuit communities this week and meeting residents who live in overcrowded social housing units, rentals, private homes and shelters. 

Yesterday, the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples visited two social housing units in Iqaluit — one of which is undergoing renovations after a window was left open in November and the pipes burst. 

"What we found when we tore the walls out was that this must have happened previously, because there was already mould in it," said Barry Biggs with the Iqaluit Housing Authority.

"In places up here the mould is very prevalent, because the air exchange in the building — it just isn't there."

The group of senators nodded in unison as the housing representatives explained the circumstances of the incident. No one living in the unit was hurt from the mold, because they had already moved out. 

As the senators looked around the neighbouring unit — which was recently repaired following a kitchen fire — another employees explained the housing authority has "families waiting to get into this unit," and it will be filled on Friday.

Senators Dennis Patterson and Lillian Dyck leave an Iqaluit social housing unit. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

'Eyes are going to be opened'

Dressed in a Pangnirtung-style crocheted cap and a sealskin parka, Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson said he's seen first hand just how "fundamental" proper housing is to the lives of Nunavummiut. But that's not true for most of his colleagues.

"Their eyes are going to be opened and they're going come back with a much better understanding of our problems and challenges," he said.

Obed said he hopes that will be the case, especially since "there has not been the interest in solving this issue to date." 

This year's federal budget includes more than $150 million for new affordable housing across the Inuit homeland, which Obed said is positive, but hardly enough to meaningfully address the scope of the housing crisis.

'I think it's a fundamental issue,' says Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson. 'There's hardly a more important issue than housing.' (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

"You can't ever say no to money that will help build houses, especially considering our 40 per cent overcrowding rate," he said. 

"The concern that we have is that somehow people can feel good about this, that parliamentarians and senators can feel as though they made a meaningful contribution."

Patterson said he believes this report can make a difference since it comes from a "federal angle" and will prompt a response from the government. 

For the sake of Canada's Inuit, Obed said he hopes Patterson is right: "Just because we are Inuit does not mean we are any less Canadian."