'A colossal humanitarian failure': MPs hear about impacts of northern housing shortage

Northern housing leaders, including the N.W.T's housing minister, spoke to a federal committee Tuesday about the housing crisis in the N.W.T. and Nunavut, leaving many MPs expressing shock at its impact on Indigenous people.

N.W.T. housing minister makes case for more funding, and more flexible ways to access it

A shack where a young family in Igloolik, Nunavut, was living in 2016 when a Senate committee toured the area to inspect housing conditions. They described them as "inadequate and unsafe." (WE CAN DO BETTER: Housing in Inuit Nunangat, Senate report )

The ongoing shortage of accessible, affordable, high-quality housing in northern Canada comes as no surprise to the people who live here. 

Now, the federal government's Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAN) is exploring the effects of this housing shortage on Indigenous people.

On Tuesday, the N.W.T.'s minister responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation and homelessness, Paulie Chinna, was one of the witnesses. She spoke to the committee about the state of the housing shortage in the N.W.T., its disproportionate impact on Indigenous people and what the federal government could do to help. 

"I see the effects of the housing shortage on Indigenous people in the North every day — whether this is looking at the long waiting list for public housing in most small communities or meeting underhoused people on the streets of Yellowknife," said Chinna. 

Chinna told the committee that the N.W.T. faces particular challenges when it comes to public housing.

N.W.T. Housing Minister Paulie Chinna spoke to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. The committee is looking at the impact of housing shortages on Indigenous people. (Parlvu)

There are constraints on the building season due to the short seasonal window for building and shipping supplies, and extra costs that come with the "remoteness of communities, harsh weather conditions and limited reliable transportation infrastructure" in the North.

All told, she said the territory's reliance on public housing is the second-greatest of any Canadian jurisdiction, after Nunavut.

Chinna told the committee that there are 2,600 public housing units spread through the N.W.T.'s 33 communities — but most of them are decades old. Some suffer from environmental damage, like erosion and mould. Many are also overcrowded, which has been a concern with COVID-19.

"While important progress is being made in adding new public housing units, with the help of the federal government in recent years, the need is vast and requires sustained effort," said Chinna.

Chinna asked committee members to consider various federal policies that could help solve parts of the housing crisis.

This could include "sustained, multi-year capital funding to increase the stock of new public housing," reversing the federal decision to wind down operational funding for public housing and giving local and territorial governments more say about how to spend the money.

A call for more, and more flexible funding

"Federal government housing funding to the [Government of the Northwest Territories] must be flexible enough for the GNWT to determine its own priorities, which may be different than those of southern jurisdictions," said Chinna.

She also said the federal government needs to make it easier for communities to access the funding that has been set aside for public housing. Right now, she says they face "significant barriers" to getting money that has already been earmarked to help them.

"We've got Indigenous organizations and representatives that are trying to access this funding, and they don't have the capacity to be submitting these proposals going forward," she said.

After the first part of Tuesday's committee session, Chinna was joined by Igloolik Housing Association chairperson Raigili Amaaq and Nunavut Housing Corporation President and CEO Eiryn Devereaux. Many MPs reacted dramatically to what they heard about the longstanding northern housing crisis. 

'A colossal humanitarian failure'

"I know that all of us, regardless of what party we come from or what region we represent, agree completely that safe, secure, affordable homes are critical to quality of life, to standard of living [and] to health outcomes," said Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs.

"I do have to confess, I sit here as a Conservative who is a proponent for limited government and responsible spending, but I am shocked and disturbed by what is clearly a colossal humanitarian failure to ensure sufficient housing for fellow Canadians in northern and remote communities."

Stubbs then inquired about whether private sector and community partnerships might help alleviate some of the housing shortage. 

Marilène Gill, who represents the riding of Manicouagan in Quebec, also affirmed that "of course, everyone wants to cooperate" to increase the available public housing in the North. 

"This is one of our first meetings, but we are learning immediately how important this issue is to First Nations," she said. 

Gill further asked whether more funding would be enough to make progress, or whether northern communities would need more infrastructure and capacity to build and maintain their own housing as well. 

N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod emphasized the complexity of the issue.  Although political will to address the problem will undoubtedly help, he said, the housing shortage isn't going to go away overnight. 

"We all know that it's not going to be an easy solution," he said. "We all know that there's no silver bullet that's going to fix it. We have 33 communities, and every one of the communities are facing challenges and there's no one-size-fits-all." 


Julia Peterson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. They are a journalist with a passion for arts journalism, science reporting, and social justice movements. They were with the CBC from 2020-2021.