“Stay home, stay safe, save lives” is what the Canadian government advised during the COVID-19 pandemic. This applies to most Canadians as minimizing contact between people is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19, but for Northern Indigenous communities, this is close to impossible. The housing crisis is worsening during the pandemic due to the lack of consistent funding and pervasive resource problems from the pre-existing lack of basic human necessities. How can people stay home, stay safe, and save lives amidst a housing crisis?
Background and Current Situation of the Housing Crisis
For the Inuit, the housing crisis has existed since the 1950s when they were provided with wood-frame houses in Frobisher Bay (Nunavut) by the Canadian government through programs such as the Eskimo Housing Program, which was introduced when the Canadian government began to provide social welfare programs. A combination of criticism from American defence personnel regarding Inuit health and housing concerns over Canadian sovereignty of the North, difficulties in administering health and welfare to the dispersed Inuit population and the increase in presence of Inuit at government posts convinced the federal government to introduce social welfare programs.
Additionally, to facilitate these programs, the government encouraged the Inuit to settle permanently. This program ultimately illustrated Canada’s limited understanding of the Inuit as they traditionally lived a seasonal nomadic lifestyle, where they moved with the season and according to harvesting and hunting knowledge.
To further encourage the Inuit, the federal government promised to provide low rent or free housing and education, when in reality there was a lack of houses. Around 1200 housing units were built from the Eskimo Housing Program, and these were also not built for the northern climate — called ‘matchbox’ houses, these did not accommodate Inuit culture and were too small for Inuit families. Mr. Obed, the President of ITK (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), a non-profit organization that represents 65 000 Inuit described these houses as “basically a square box with no utilities and wooden walls with hardly any insulation.”
Ultimately, the federal government’s involvement has decreased over time, and the responsibility for housing was transferred to each province and territory in the 1970s. Currently, the role of the federal government is focused on the provision of funding.
Despite the help from welfare programs, the cost of providing housing, Indigenous peoples’ low income, the rapidly growing population with the increasing need for housing are all underlying factors for the housing crisis. In August 2000, more than 1,000 families in Nunavut were waiting for housing assistance, and in 2014 Aboriginal homelessness has been described as an epidemic, despite Aboriginal peoples representing around 4 percent of the entire population. More than half the homeless population in Thunder Bay (Ontario) were made up of Aboriginal peoples, and in Yellowknife, the number goes up to 95 percent.
The pandemic worsened this problem, where work on a community housing strategy in the Northwest Territory’s Fort Good Hope was halted due to the pandemic in 2020. Furthermore, the funding required to address this housing crisis doubled during the pandemic; similarly, it is estimated that up to 4 billion dollars in investment may be required for Quebec’s housing crisis, however, there will be an 8% decrease in the On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program for Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador in 2021.
Consequences of the Housing Crisis Amidst Lockdown Policies
Overcrowding has been an issue, even before the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lack of available housing. This shortage meant that some people had to live with friends and relatives and “couch surf”, moving from home to home. These people are the hidden homeless. Families usually have at least one other relative living with them, and multiple families can live in one household. As such, it’s no surprise that the UN reported that a quarter of those living in reserves is in overcrowded conditions.
For many, “couch surfing” isn’t an option anymore due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they have to rely on tent cities or shelters in urban areas, and these temporary homes aren’t just for the homeless. Those living in homes have to sleep in shifts due to the lack of beds, or they are forced into isolation tents when other family members have to self-isolate.
Assessing clean drinking water is also a challenge if one is homeless and living in temporary pandemic structures, or if the reserve has poor water systems. Like overcrowding, the lack of clean drinking water already existed prior to COVID-19, where 75 percent of reserves in Canada had contaminated water in 2019, causing communities to declare a state of emergency. This makes it difficult to maintain proper hygiene and sanitation, which is critical to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those already living in homes can still be affected by the housing crisis. In the Northwest Territories, the number of houses that required major repair or were without basic amenities tripled from 2016 to 2019. Issues in these houses can include poor air quality, where the furnace circulates mold and dust throughout the house which may cause negative health effects such as eye soreness and nosebleeds. This adds to the already existing problem of health inequality and the high number of chronic diseases that Indigenous peoples experience in their daily lives, along with the risk of COVID-19.
The housing crisis affects the homeless and those living in homes that are overcrowded and need repair and lack clean drinking water. The lockdown policies regarding Covid-19 worsen the housing crisis, as the shortage of available houses forces overcrowding which makes it difficult to practice physical distancing. The lack of clean water makes it hard to maintain good hygiene, and those who are in unhealthy living conditions due to poor air quality may still experience negative health as they have to stay home due to lockdown policies.
The core problem of the housing crisis is the lack of consistent long-term funding, which is what initiates any housing project. It must be consistent so that long-term projects with the province or territory will be chosen instead of short-term projects, which causes Indigenous governments and nonprofits to spend more time applying for grants rather than actually working. Having consistent funding will also prevent longer wait times for those needing homes and repairs by allowing housing corporations to do frequent inspections of houses. The N.W.T. Housing corporations only do semi-annual inspections to ensure houses are in safe, working condition. They have only completed slightly more than 6,000 repairs across the territory within the past decade. Currently, the N.W.T. Housing corporation needs to improve the living conditions of close to 3,000 households.
Another solution to this crisis is to make the proposal process for funding easier. Indigenous leaders in the Northwest Territories were denied the $1 billion rapid housing fund in 2021. This is only making the problem worse as the cost to repair and build homes is increasing each year. K’atl’odeeche First Nation Chief April Martel stated how the “proposal [process] was complicated” as they had to get specific prices to build homes but were given inadequate time to finish.
With all of this in mind, the housing crisis would benefit from the government working alongside Indigenous peoples to make adjustments on policies and funding based on the fact that the demand for housing is increasing due to the growth of communities.