News and Blogs

Christensen, Davison & Levac: Chronic housing needs in the Canadian North: Inequality of opportunity in northern communities



The Canadian North, which includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador, and Nunatsiavut, is a vast region rich in Indigenous cultures, pristine landscapes and waterways, natural resources, and increasingly diverse communities. It is also a region known for having the highest rates of chronic housing need in Canada. Across the North, where more than half the population is Inuit (including Inuvialuit), First Nations (including Innu), or Métis, there is chronic housing need (lack of affordability, inadequacy, unsuitability, unavailability) and lower rates of home ownership than in the southern provinces. The 2006 census found home ownership in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to be 22.7 and 52.9 per cent, respectively, compared to 71 per cent in Ontario or 73 per cent in Alberta. In most small, northern communities in Canada, social housing is the main, if not only, option, with very few opportunities for home ownership. Limited opportunities for home ownership are compounded by the high rates of unemployment in many small, northern settlements. 

Recent studies find that roughly 50 per cent of occupied dwellings in Nunavut are overcrowded and/or in need of major repair. In his ten-year follow-up report on the Nunavut Land Claim, Justice Thomas Berger wrote that the fact that even 25 per cent of Nunavut youth graduate from high school is a sign of their tenacity, given the negative health and social impacts associated with living in overcrowded housing. 

Adequate, reliable, secure housing is a foundational building block to physical and mental health, economic security, positive relationships with oneself and others, and the realization of one’s local and national citizenship. The persistence of chronic housing needs in northern communities continues to degrade all of these components of a healthy life. Chronic housing needs have been directly linked to severe respiratory tract infections in children, suicide, low high school graduation rates, family violence, and addiction, the rates of which are higher in the North than elsewhere in Canada. 

In addition to housing being a critical determinant of health, chronic housing need continues to deny many northern and Indigenous people the opportunity to engage equally in community, society, and politics. One of the many negative impacts of living in insecure housing is the inhibition of one’s capacity to invest time and energy in education, employment opportunities, political discourse, and social interactions. 

For example, in a recent study on housing insecurity in the Northwest Territories, participants described how housing policy and the conditions in their public housing units (carpet beetles, mould, drafts in windows and doors) were depressing, made them feel discouraged, and led to a sense of apathy about finding work, pursuing education, or engaging in community activities. In a country where home ownership is privileged in so many ways, including through tax incentives, government assistance, equity accrual, and the political clout of the middle and upper classes, and where it is indeed necessary in order to achieve the highest fulfillment of one’s local and national citizenship, entire communities that rely on sub-standard social housing, with no option for home ownership, are placed at a persistent disadvantage relative to their fellow Canadians. 

Recent events in Attawapiskat, Deline, and Sandy Bay First Nation all illustrate the persistence of the issue of poor housing and infrastructure, and the contribution of these issues to wide-ranging and ongoing social and economic disparities. Housing issues in northern communities manifest themselves not only between rural/remote and urban communities, but also within them. For example, in the region of Labrador West (particularly in the towns of Labrador City and Wabush), the rapid expansion of the iron ore industry has resulted in the creation of dormitory style buildings that house hundreds of temporary workers; the displacement of local community members due to extremely inflated housing prices; and dramatic service sector labour shortages due to wages that do not match the cost of living. Among the challenges presented by these housing realities are influxes of temporary foreign workers whose labour rights (e.g., time off allowances, overtime pay) are easily violated, the dislocation of local families, and a lack of available options for women experiencing domestic violence (because there is nowhere to go). 

Whether the result of decades of inadequate housing infrastructure, or of more recent economic restructuring projects which create intra-community housing problems, housing issues are human rights issues, and need to be meaningfully addressed before a real conversation about working towards equality can begin. Equality of basic needs is a prerequisite to achieving equality of opportunity. 

Inequality includes the uneven landscapes of housing, especially as they pertain to northern communities (although these same issues also apply to on- and off-reserve housing for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis peoples in southern Canada, and to housing for non-Indigenous people as well). Inequality must be understood as multi-faceted, with various components that—together, to different degrees, and contingently—contribute to and perpetuate inequality. Critical to correcting inequality is the meeting of basic needs. The nourishment of body and mind and spirit is required for anyone to even approach the table to participate in a discussion about the future of Canada. Adequate, reliable shelter is integral to meeting these basic needs.

Dr. Julia Christensen is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Geography at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Colleen Davison is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Community Health and Epidemiology and Global Development Studies at Queen’s University. Dr. Leah Levac is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manitoba.