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Fifth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, entitled We can do better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat

1st Session, 42nd Parliament, Volume 150, Issue 102

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck moved:

That the fifth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples entitled We can do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat, deposited with the Clerk of the Senate on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 be adopted and that, pursuant to rule 12-24(1), the Senate request a complete and detailed response from the government, with the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development (Minister responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) being identified as minister responsible for responding to the report, in consultation with the Ministers of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and the President of the Treasury Board.

She said: Honourable senators, it's my privilege and honour to rise today as the chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples to put a few remarks on the record with regard to our report entitled We can do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat.

First, I would like to thank the Deputy Chair, Senator Dennis Patterson, and to all the other committee members who, either here in Ottawa listened to our witnesses or those who were able to come with us when we went on a tour up North, which was very memorable. I would also like to extend thanks to our clerk, Mark Palmer; to our analysts, Brittany Collier and Alexandre Lavoie; and to Tony Spears, the writer from Senate Communications who accompanied us on our trip and wrote a daily blog, which was widely read. I think we received a lot of attention because of that.

I would also like to thank Senator Patterson, who hosted us when the committee was in Iqaluit. He and his wife treated us to dinner and entertainment one night. It was very much appreciated. I also want to thank Senator Watt. When we visited Kuujjuaq, he ensured we met with the right people and ensured everything went well there.

The report outlines the committee's observations, findings and recommendations from the study on northern housing, which took place between February and June 2016. It looked at the best practices and ongoing challenges relating to housing in Inuit Nunangat, which means "the place where Inuit live," in Inuktitut.

One of the wonderful things about our report is that we had it translated into Inuktitut, because the report really is for the people who live there and the first language of the people who live there is Inuktitut. If you go to the website you'll be able to click on it and see the report in Inuktitut in syllabics. I think that was one of the best things we did. We did that to honour the people and also so that people could more easily access it. I think that's a good thing.

The committee's report was informed by testimony heard here in Ottawa and also during our community site visits. Here in Ottawa we heard over 50 witnesses, including Inuit government representatives, northern housing authorities, youth representatives and various academics who studied housing in the North.


In April 2016, some of the committee members travelled to communities in Nunavut and Nunavik to see the situation first- hand. The communities we visited included Iqaluit, Igloolik, Kuujjuaq, Inukjuak and Sanikiluaq. We had planned to visit Nain in Nunatsiavut as well, but unfortunately bad weather prevented us from going there. We would have been able to fly there, but we wouldn't have been able to get back. So we decided that we had better not do that.

I would like to say that the trip was quite memorable in terms of the types of aircraft we were on. Being able to fly over the Arctic, especially when we went above the Arctic Circle to visit Igloolik, was quite an eye-opener, because it's how everyone imagines the North to look — totally flat, white snow and ice everywhere, no trees, cold and barren.

In Igloolik there was a scientific research station which I believe was constructed in the 1950s. Senator Patterson is agreeing with me. It looks like a UFO, an unidentified flying object. So it was quite memorable.

I would also like to thank the various community members who live in these small towns and cities who actually opened their homes to us and allowed us to walk in to see what the homes looked like. We very much appreciated that.

We were able to see first-hand what the housing crisis in Inuit Nunangat actually looks like. For instance, one of the things that struck me is that we're used to having houses with basements. They have no basements. We're used to houses that, if they don't have a basement, it's built on a foundation that's flat on the ground. But there, the houses were built on stilts. Part of the reason they are up in the air is so when the wind comes, the snow doesn't build up and engulf the houses in snowbanks. That was quite a shock to me to see the houses built in that way.

What we did see is that the houses were built mostly according to southern building code standards, and those standards are not appropriate for the North. We did see a number of houses that were built that way. The lifetime of the house is much shorter because of the climate. The wood deteriorates because it shrinks and expands. The windows weren't properly insulated; they were only double-pane windows, and there was poor insulation. Consequently, the homes would have a lot of humidity problems where the humidity in the house would create frost and you would get ice buildup.

One of the worst things is that in some of these homes the front door, which may have been the only door, would face north so you would get the cold north wind blowing right into the house. Because of the humidity problems, the door would sometimes freeze shut. This created a safety problem. If there were a fire and the door is frozen shut, it would be difficult to get out of the house quickly. In addition, if there were incidents of family violence where you needed to get out of the house, it would also impede your ability to do so. Those are some of the safety issues.

In addition, in one case we saw 15 people living in a small three- bedroom house. No basement, remember, and it's a small house. Can you imagine living year-long, in the dead of winter, when there is no light outside? It's like having all of your relatives with you at Christmastime all year long. There were no lights, inadequate heating, one bathroom, and humidity problems. It is a situation that should not happen and should not continue to happen.

The humidity creates a lot of mould, so you get diseases and respiratory problems associated with the mould.

There were also reports of tuberculosis. That has to change.

As we say in Southern Canada, housing has to come first, and certainly that needs to happen up North.

A severe housing shortage is compounded by the high rates of overcrowding. Many Inuit are basically on the brink of homelessness in one of the harshest climates in the world. In Nunavik, about half of Inuit families live in overcrowded homes. As I said before, we saw one example where 15 people were living in a small house. In the back of the house there was a shack where there was a younger couple with a small baby, and their only source of heat was the traditional seal oil lamp. That clearly has to end.

Up North, of course, climate change is also occurring. In one community — I think it was Inukjuak — the permafrost was starting to melt. When the permafrost melts, the foundation of the house starts to shift. We would see examples where there would be cracks along the ceiling where the walls had moved, cracks around the doors and along the walls at the floor level. The house was shifting because of the melting permafrost.

Now, in conjunction with researchers from Université Laval, they are trying to find areas nearby where they can move, where there is bedrock as opposed to permafrost. Interestingly, in Iqaluit, we found that the limiting factor was the hard rock or flat areas of land where houses can be built. They're running out of areas suitable for development. They can't spread out much horizontally, so they might have to spread out vertically. Those are the kinds of things we saw.

The housing crisis is only getting worse over time. We have known about this for decades. Now, because the Inuit population is young and rapidly growing, it's only going to get worse. There's already significant pressure on the limited number of houses, and half the population of the Inuit are age 25 and younger. It's critical that we act now.

I will now talk about the Inuit youth. We were fortunate to hear from two Inuit youth in Kuujjuaq who explained to us very well what the situation was for them. They talked about youth health issues. For instance, one witness told us about the need to have a safe house where you could go if there was violence in the home or if you didn't feel safe sleeping at home and you needed to find a place where you could go. If everyone's home is crowded, there is no space for you there, so you need to have a transitional space that is safe.

We didn't make a big issue of this, but we also noted that the rate of suicide up North is seven to eight times higher than it is for the rest of Canada. We had two witnesses — Natan Obed from ITK, and Dr. Riva, a researcher from Université Laval — who said that the inadequate housing that the Inuit live in is one of the predictors of suicide. So if, as a child, you live in a house with 15 people, you have no place to study, you probably have no place to sleep, and you probably have to line up to go to the bathroom. If there is family violence, what are you going to do?

The housing is a very limiting feature, so it's important that this be addressed now. We are looking to our youth across Canada to lead us to a better future, so we need appropriate housing in order for that to happen.

In addition, two youth witnesses, Louisa Yeates and Olivia Ikey, talked about how they were trying to educate themselves to get out of this cycle. However, if they left the North and went south to get educated, when they came back and tried to find a house, they were no longer considered to be northerners. The housing policies were such that they were essentially discriminated against. They said that if they had not gone away and got educated, if they had stayed there and had babies — these were two young ladies — they likely would have got a house. But because they were single, educated, and were getting a reasonable salary, it was more difficult to get a house.


The incentive to get an education and a better-paying job was not there because the housing was not available to them. They really encouraged us to put that recommendation in to look at the housing policy so that no longer happens. In fact, when we were travelling through Iqaluit, we did drive down one road, and I remember seeing houses and saying, "Well, what are those?" They said that they were staff houses, but it was clear no one was living in them.

Inukjuak and Igloolik are very small communities. In Inukjuak there were 10 to 15 vacant homes. No one was living in them, sometimes for years. In Igloolik, there were 19 vacant homes, and these were all considered government houses. They are vacant. The witnesses told us that quite likely those staff houses were built to a better or higher standard than what was available to the local residents.

It's a great source of frustration for the young people, who recognize that it's unfair to them that they're not able to live in those homes. Can you imagine you're living in terrible conditions, you don't have any place, and there is an empty house right there that you could occupy if the policy had been changed? So we recommended that those policies be changed.

Our report contains 13 recommendations that we believe can begin to alleviate the housing situation in Inuit Nunangat and I went over the last ones with regard to the youth.

The first one is that you need funding. Our first recommendation was that a federal funding strategy that will provide adequate, stable and predictable funding for housing in Inuit Nunangat be initiated. You can't just go year by year and rely upon, we'll give you this much money this year but then the materials may not get there until it's too late in the season so they can't begin to build until the spring and then the budget cycle starts all over again.

Could I have five more minutes?

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Dyck: Funding strategy was number one in the list, and we recognize that stable, long-term funding is required to replace — and this is important — the declining CMHC funding contributions.

Now, CMHC has contributed the bulk of money in the beginning, which provides money for social housing, and that will be at zero twenty years from now; so it's going down rapidly.

Now, the median income for an Inuit resident is only $30,000 a year, and there is a high cost of living. There's a high cost of operating and maintaining homes. The operation and maintenance is about $35,000 a year, which is more than the median income.

So you can see why home ownership is really not available for many residents. Therefore, having the social housing funding at this point in time is critical. If social housing funding isn't available, the situation becomes dire.

The key messages: The funding was number one; second, the housing crisis in Inuit Nunangat is a critical public health issue because of the prevalence of mould that creates respiratory diseases; the incidence of tuberculosis is rising. There could be violence in the homes. There's likely a link to the suicide epidemic up North, and the housing crisis decreases the chances of educational success for children and youth.

We really need to act immediately to address this because it just creates a terrible cycle where people will never get out of it until they have a decent place to live.

We are pleased to announce that while we were doing our report we wrote to the ministers of CMHC and Indigenous and Northern Affairs last May to ask them to transfer money directly to the Inuit housing organizations rather than the provincial government. The government did that, and we are recommending they do that, because the other major theme was that no one is listening to the Inuit or housing authorities. Unless you listen to them, you will not build a proper home. Unless you give them the money directly, you're not empowering them; you're not giving them the chance to create their own future.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette: I would like to ask the honourable senator a few questions.

The Hon. the Speaker: She has a minute and a half left.

Senator Ringuette: First, I must congratulate the committee and the report and especially your very good resumé of the committee's findings and recommendations.

For the next decade, what would be the amount of money and the different quantity of one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three- bedroom housing that the committee has identified?

Senator Dyck: Thank you for that question, Senator Ringuette. The press asked us that same question. We didn't focus so much on the finances, but we were told there is a shortage of about 4,000 houses in at least two regions, and it cost about $500,000 per house; so multiply that out and that gives us $2 billion.

I don't have the numbers in front of me, but in the last budget there was increased funding of tens and twenties of millions of dollars geared directly to the North.

Fortunately, the total population of Inuit Nunangat is about 45,000 individuals; so it's not a huge number of people. Still, if we're building two- or three-bedroom houses, it costs about $500,000 per house.

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