In Nunavut, housing promises never kept: MMIWG hearings
“Why is the progress so slow, with respect to the undisputed need of many, many more housing units?”
In the early 1950s, Qikiqtani Inuit largely lived in seasonal camps or in clusters of families. Over the following 25 years, though, many of those Inuit would come to live in 13 communities set up by the federal government.
Some went willingly, while others were forced, coerced or led on by promises of education, better health care and low-cost housing.
And this history helped create the Baffin region’s ongoing housing crisis, said Beth Symes, a lawyer representing Pauktuutit, who cross-examined witnesses in a public hearing by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
“The promise of housing was told by many different people. No one has ever denied that the promise was made by Canada,” said Symes, in reference to testimonies and reports given to the commission as evidence by witnesses, including the findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission.
On Monday, the first morning of Iqaluit’s hearings, lawyers began cross-examining expert witnesses who gave testimonies during a panel session titled “Inuit Perspectives.”
There will be three such panels during this week’s hearings, which focus on the impacts of colonial violence.
“Inuit left behind important things in their life, either because they thought they would be going back or that they wouldn’t need it because everything would be supplied in the new settlement,” said Symes.
“Is it fair to say that for some of those families there was absolutely no housing available for them in the new community?”
The answer from all witnesses: yes.
“When they first started moving people there was very little or almost none for some families,” said witness Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick, who is a director of social development for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
Many families would share homes in the winter and live in tents in the summer.
Those homes “were as small as matchboxes. They had no plumbing or electricity, it was very basic shelter,” she said.
Some Inuit were relocated by the Canadian government far away from their traditional homes. The government’s motivations for these relocations included “asserting sovereignty in the High Arctic, establishing presence on the land,” said Symes.
At the same time as relocations were happening in Nunavut, the American military was also working in the Canadian Arctic to operate DEW Line sites.
“The construction of these matchbox houses was not suitable for the Arctic. They deteriorated rapidly,” Symes said. “Americans publicly said that Canada had created slums for Inuit.”
Bringing her narrative back to modern day, Symes asked witnesses for the inquiry’s record what impacts inadequate housing have had on Inuit. She asked whether overcrowding hampers the education of children, whether poor housing is a risk factor for family violence, and whether homelessness damages a person’s mental health.
“Where is Canada’s obligation with respect to housing today?” she asked. “Why is the progress so slow, with respect to the undisputed need of many, many more housing units?”
Idlout-Sudlovenick, who has worked in housing support for 10 years, said the struggle is largely financial.
“I would say it was mainly to do with money … building houses is very costly in the isolated communities. There is some progress, but it is going to take time,” she said.
Idlout-Sudlovenick told the commission it’s important to remember that many people in Nunavut rely on public housing.
“The employment rate is very low,” she said, adding that home ownership is a different discussion.
“Many communities in Nunavut do not have banks in their communities,” she said. “You can’t just go down the street and apply for a mortgage.”
This week’s hearings are different. Instead of families and survivors, the commission will hear from experts, elders and community leaders. The commission plans to release a report in April of next year.