'Inadequate and unsafe' Inuit housing needs national fix, say senators

'[We] were invited into this dark, plywood shack, where a young couple with a young child had spent what is a very cruel winter in the High Arctic,' says Senator Dennis Patterson.

Inuit in the North 'face an acute housing crisis which threatens their health and safety,' says report

A child's school pictures lay on a mattress on the floor in an overcrowded house in Inukjuak, Que. (WE CAN DO BETTER: Housing in Inuit Nunangat, Senate report)

At one point in the spring of 2016, members of a Senate committee on a fact-finding mission were inspecting an overcrowded home in Igloolik, Nunavut.

"I was amazed at the number of people living in that house," said Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson.

Then he and Lillian Dyck, co-chair and chair of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, were told there was another small family living in a shack behind the house.

"[We] were invited into this dark, plywood shack, where a young couple with a young child had spent what is a very cruel winter in the High Arctic. And it was very compelling to see the lengths to which people have gone to survive in this cold climate."

Due to the severe housing shortage, a young family in Igloolik, Nunavut, lived in this poorly constructed wooden shed. (WE CAN DO BETTER: Housing in Inuit Nunangat, Senate report )

The committee spent five months studying the North's housing crisis, visiting overcrowded homes in Igloolik, Iqaluit and Sanikiluaq in Nunavut and Kuujjuaq and Inukjuak in Quebec.

In a report issued Wednesday, the senators agree that Inuit "face an acute housing crisis which threatens their health and safety." They characterize the crisis as a source of "despair" with far-reaching effects on health, family violence, and children's ability to learn.

"These inadequate and unsafe housing conditions impact the health and well-being of Inuit communities," said Patterson from Ottawa Wednesday.

As a remedy, they call on the federal government to develop a funding strategy for northern housing in all four Inuit regions.

They also include 13 other recommendations, ranging from building emergency shelters for those fleeing violence and unsafe homes to working toward better designs for homes that could bring down the cost of maintenance and repair. (See the full report below.)

The committee studied housing in Inuit Nunangat, the four Inuit regions. (WE CAN DO BETTER: Housing in Inuit Nunangat, Senate report)

Big price tags

But the report shies away from any dollar figures.

"It's important to look at the cost," said Senator Dyck. "But it's also important not to just focus on that because unfortunately, if we do focus on that, it can lead to a state of inertia. And people think that's way too much money, there's nothing that we can do to alleviate it quickly."

For Dyck, it's also a question of "moral and political will."

In Nunavut, where over half the population relies on public housing, the Nunavut Housing Corporation has pointed to a need for 3,500 housing units. It estimates the cost to build one unit between $400,000 and $550,000.

That puts the price tag around $1.6 billion for that territory alone, not including the cost to operate and maintain those homes, or build more to address the rapidly growing population.

The Inuvialuit need an estimated 107 housing units, at a cost to $300,000 to $400,000 each, for a rough total of $37.5 million.

Senator Patterson said he was also "alarmed" to learn that the federal funding that does exist for northern housing is declining, and set to be phased out in 2038.

That's because several agreements for managing social housing units previously managed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in the 1990s are coming to an end.

Declining CMHC funding for operating social housing in the N.W.T. for 2002-2003 to 2037-2038. (Northwest Territories Housing Corp. 2015-2016 Business Plan)

It's not clear whether the federal government will respond to the report. Similar pleas have been made by Inuit leaders for years. 

"One of the key things that certainly I think all of us noticed when we travelled there was the sense of not being heard when we talked to people in all of the communities," said Senator Dyck. "Virtually every one of them said no one is listening to us."

But Patterson gave one example of where the Trudeau government had already taken the advice of the committee.

During its information gathering, he said, they heard from Inuit leaders that they wanted more control over housing in their regions. The committee forwarded that recommendation, which Patterson said was "immediately implemented."

That resulted in $15 million in federal funding for housing going directly to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and $15 million to Nunatsiavut last year.

Read We Can Do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat.

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