Homeland security: North and south meet to talk housing in Nunavik
“Our truth and your diploma together will build the best house”
In a place where temperatures linger well below freezing for most of the year, few issues are more important to northerners than housing.
But the kinds of dwellings that exist in the north, how they’re built, where they’re built, the materials used to build them, how much they cost, who pays for them and who gets to live where, all combine to make northern housing a complex and controversial issue.
Ever since Inuit moved to permanent settlements, southern bureaucrats, politicians, architects and academics have tried to build adequate shelters for them. Many have failed. Even today, decades after the migration to villages and towns, the number and quality of dwellings in Canada’s Arctic remain dismally inadequate.
The Inuit Studies Conference, which recently concluded in Montreal, addressed these realities by devoting a day’s worth of presentations and discussions to examining issues around northern housing in Nunavik. The key to progress, it seems, is collaboration.
“I know in the south it’s very important to have diplomas, to have certificates, to be a professional, but we’re professionals in truth,” said Olivia Ikey, who gave an impassioned speech at the start of the day. “We want to share our truth in order for you to understand how your policies and procedures affect our lives and the lives of those that are not even born yet.”
Ikey, a youth advocate from Kuujjuaq, told the audience, many of them academics and researchers, that the lack of housing in Nunavik is a full-on crisis. People wait for years for social housing units, she said. Overcrowding leads to stress, illness, depression and violence.
“When we’re talking about housing … what it really comes down to is saving a life,” she said. “You will save lives.”
The housing panel on Oct. 3 was hosted by Université Laval’s School of Architecture through its Habiter le Nord québécois/Living in Northern Quebec project.
That project got $1,657,847 over the past five years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to examine culturally appropriate and sustainable planning for housing in Nunavik and the Innu homeland of Nitassinan.
The aim of this five-year project is collaboration among various stakeholders in the hope of understanding problems better, imagining sustainable solutions and finding ways to implement them.
Ikey thanked the Habiter le Nord leaders and students for finally giving Inuit space and time to share their ideas about something so urgent.
“People are coming to our communities and asking us to share our ideas. We were never asked what kind of houses we wanted and this is the first time our realities, our truth, our culture and everything is being implemented into a house, the basis of human life,” she said.
“Our truth and your diploma together will build the best house that will last for many, many years, that will be given to the next generation of Inuit.”
The day’s presentations highlighted projects by teams of Laval students, professors, southern experts and Nunavimmiut relating to areas such as urban planning, infrastructure, creative housing design and better recreation centres.
Hilda Snowball, vice-chair of the Kativik Regional Government and former mayor of Kangiqsualujjuaq—“if you can say, ‘can you swallow a truck?’ you can say Kangiqsualujjuaq,” she told her audience—teamed up with Marie-Pierre McDonald of Groupe BC2 urban planning consultants in Montreal for one such presentation.
They are examining how best to deal with rapid development and expansion of Nunavik communities, while respecting Inuit social needs and preserving traditional hunting and camping areas outside town, on land owned collectively by Inuit under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
From 2001 to 2016, the population in Nunavik grew to 13,623 from 9,632, a change of 41 per cent, compared to the rest of Québec, which grew by roughly 10 per cent in those same 15 years. Nunavik covers 500,000 square kilometres of land, but municipal boundaries offer limited potential for growth and development.
Slumping permafrost and other environmental constraints, along with the increase in mining activity and natural resource exploration in the region, are putting pressure on towns and villages to spread into the quiet places where Inuit have traditionally sought escape.
“It’s very important to us to reconnect to the land, to the environment. The animals are what we eat. It is our need,” said Snowball. But, she added, housing is also needed and municipal space is running out.
McDonald explained that the 1998 Kativik regional land use master plan is reaching its limits, and she said it’s crucial to ask what sort of vision should guide future planning in the area. Master plans and zoning bylaws help communities manage their growth, McDonald said, but some local people find those complex mechanisms confusing.
“We think we know everything, from the south, we’re going to teach people how to preserve their land,” McDonald said.
“But are we helping them? Is it good?” she asked. “There is so much development from outside, from different promoters, and there’s a big need for housing, and funding comes at the very last minute. So you need to have a plan. You need to have the tools. But are these the right ones?”
The 21st annual Inuit Studies Conference concluded on Sunday, Oct. 6.