EDITORIAL: Around the Arctic January 10, 2012 - 5:37 pm

Better housing, less disease


This past mid-December, when most Arctic residents started shifting their lives around to get ready for the holiday season, the National Aboriginal Health Organization released a big report on what it calls the “ongoing Inuit housing crisis in Canada.”

Chances are few people, inside or outside government, will even read this or be motivated to act on its findings.

Some people, long inured to the Arctic’s housing dysfunctions, look at overcrowded housing the way they look at spring blizzards and January darkness: an ineluctable feature of Arctic life. Others, while believing in the theoretical prospect of improvement, simply don’t believe that governments, especially the federal government, is prepared to spend more on social housing right now, especially in the wake of Nunavut’s cost overrun fiasco.

If so, that would be unfortunate.

Because unlike many past reports on Inuit housing, which focus mostly on overcrowding, shortages, construction costs, waiting lists and homelessness, this one’s more than a little different.

This one talks about the relationship between Inuit housing and disease. And that’s a big part of the discussion about why Inuit don’t live as long as other Canadians.

The Nunavut government’s 2011 health indicators report, quietly released this November, reported that if you were born in Nunavut in 2005, you can expect to live 69.8 years. If you were born just about anywhere else in Canada, you can expect to live 80.2 years.

In Nunavik, the state of population health is even worse. This past May, the Conference Board of Canada found the life expectancy for Nunavik, 66.7 years, is worse than for Iraq or Uzbekistan.

This means that to achieve those appalling averages, the people of Canada’s Arctic start dying in their 50s, in middle age, a time of life when most people elsewhere in Canada still enjoy robust health.

But until NAHO’s report no one has ever attempted to bring together all the available information about overcrowded Arctic housing conditions and link it to all the available information about disease.

And the list of those diseases is breathtaking. They include tuberculosis, from which Inuit suffer the highest infection rates in Canada, as well as asthma, influenza, hepatitis, bacterial ear infections, infant lung infections, and skin diseases.

Most of those infections occur when too many people find themselves sharing too little space. Inside overcrowded houses, the microscopic bugs that produce these diseases spread easily from person to person, especially in the dry air of winter.

For infants and young children with weak immune systems, these are deadly living conditions. Much-feared RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, infections bring hundreds of Inuit infants into hospitals in some years. Most survive with good medical care, but for many, their weakened lungs deform their lives into adulthood. Otitis media ear infections, which produce hearing loss, can also produce life-long effects.

The authors of the report don’t offer any suggestions on how to fix Arctic Canada’s intractable housing shortfalls. This is to be expected. They’re medical researchers, not economists or civil engineers.

Also, housing shortages and quality deficiencies in the Arctic aren’t only the result of the social housing shortage, though that’s a big part of it.

The brutal cost of living in the Arctic, especially the cost of energy and the cost of buying and transporting construction materials, has stunted the development of private housing alternatives.

Now that those costs are rising even faster than in the past, the prospects for creative private-public partnerships on housing are fading.

At the same time, incomes aren’t rising fast enough to make homeownership possible for many northern families. In Iqaluit, for example, an annual household income of $90,000 is considered the minimum for homeownership.

Given that some Nunavut communities, according to Statistics Canada, suffer from median incomes as low as $15,000 a year, increased homeownership is unlikely to become a viable fix any time soon, unless it’s supported by large amounts of government spending.

We already know that overcrowded sub-standard housing is a source of mental distress and social disorder. Thanks to NAHO’s report, we can now appreciate its connection to debilitating, life-shortening disease.

So while governments may balk at the cost of building and maintaining more social housing, they will continue to pay mounting health care costs. At the same time, too many people in the Arctic will continue to pay with their lives. JB