Nunavut’s humanitarian disaster: housing

In the next federal election campaign, Nunavut must ask for more

This photo was used to illustrate a 2017 Senate committee report on housing in Inuit Nunangat. It shows a wooden shed in Igloolik that, at the time the photo was taken, housed a young family. (Photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada Aboriginal Peoples committee)

By Jim Bell

There’s no doubt about it. Nunavut’s housing shortage represents a major humanitarian disaster.

For Canada, a rich, self-satisfied G7 nation, it’s a national embarrassment, a dark stain on our country’s reputation.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, just take a look at a report released in 2017 by the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee.

The members of that committee — Liberals, Conservatives and independents — looked deeply into the housing crisis that plagues Nunavut and the other regions of Inuit Nunangat.

What they found was shocking, but not a surprise to anyone who knows Nunavut and the other Arctic regions. They concluded the housing shortage in the Arctic constitutes a major public-health emergency.

In support of that, they cited evidence showing that the consequences of overcrowded housing include increased disease transmission, high rates of depression and stress, increased physical and sexual violence, higher dropout rates from school and constant exposure to mould.

Three years later, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq took a short journey through the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions to take her own look at housing. Her revelations were no big surprise either.

But in her case, Qaqqaq told the CBC in a recent interview, what she saw was so shocking the ensuing burnout, depression and anxiety led to her taking a 10-week health break.

The housing shortage in Nunavut also represents a threat to social cohesion, pitting haves against have-nots, generating envy and resentment based on race and class.

As we’ve said, none of this is new. Since the early colonial period of the 1950s and 1960s, the people of the eastern Arctic have always suffered from an inadequate supply of housing, with supply chasing demand like a puppy chasing its tail.

But in spite of the territory’s housing deficit, the Nunavut Housing Corp.’s stock of 5,668 social housing units represents the territory’s biggest and most expensive social program.

In 2019-20, the territory’s social housing tenants paid $17.6 million in rent, representing only eight per cent of the cost of maintaining the housing they inhabit. The housing corporation paid the rest of the bill that year: $210.3 million.

That’s because the average annual cost of maintaining a single social housing unit in Nunavut is a whopping $26,700.

By the way, this also means that on paper, Nunavut likely offers the most generous social housing rent system in the country: 73 per cent of tenants were charged only $60 a month in 2019-20, because they earned less than $27,041.

In Canada, the national standard for social housing rent is 30 per cent of gross income. But under Nunavut’s sliding rent scale, you don’t have to pay that much until your income rises to $80,000.

Despite that, many tenants still believe rents are too high, and many aren’t paying any rent at all. In 2019-20, the territory’s social housing tenants owed a whopping $39 million in arrears.

So in addition to being a humanitarian disaster, Nunavut’s social housing system is a huge administrative and financial problem too.

Home ownership? Forget about it. In 2016, 80 per cent of social housing tenants earned less than $23,000 a year. At the same time, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates you now need an annual income of $139,000 to afford to buy and maintain a single detached house in Iqaluit.

The underlying reality is this: an estimated 3,545 households in Nunavut need housing and can’t get it. That’s the root issue.

But at the moment, Nunavut is stuck with a 10-year, $270-million social housing agreement with Ottawa, signed in 2019, that pays for the construction of only about 80 units per year.

So before Nunavut can fix all of its other housing problems, the territory must build far more social housing at a faster rate than it’s able to now.

That, in turn, means that in the upcoming federal election campaign, likely to be held this year, the people of Nunavut must do something simple: ask for a lot more.

That means, at minimum, a social housing construction program that’s able to pay for at least 3,000 new units over 10 years, at a rate of 300 units a year. At the same time, the federal government must also be prepared to pay the resulting increase in annual maintenance costs.

All the Nunavut candidates in the upcoming election will pretend to care about housing. Some might actually mean what they say. But to fix Nunavut’s housing mess, that’s the minimum they must ask for.

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(32) Comments:

  1. Posted by ian on

    Hard facts,simple to understand,the gn has no answer,and its not their fault,poverty is getting worse,no job prospects outside the three hubs,booming population,kids having kids,and the inuit leadership,worrying about the edmonton eskimos,

    • Posted by Have 2 kids on

      nobody talks about the choices of our young to have children that they have no idea they will feed or get houses for. Lots of bad decision making.

  2. Posted by Ask a little more on

    Don’t forget to ask for clean drinking water, too.
    But don’t get your hopes up, it’s going to be business as usual no matter who gets elected.

  3. Posted by Oscare on

    Its time we stop relying on NHC to build more housing. They can only build with the funding that they received from the Federal Government. We have to start putting pressure on NTI to have the regional Inuit development corporations to assist in building housing units. We have to start asking private property developers for their assistance in building AFFORDABLE and ADEQUATE housing. They future of Arctic housing looks very bleak if u ask me

  4. Posted by what about on

    It would be nice to see that the NTI fund and the terms of the “NLCA/agreement”
    –GN, LHOs mandated to go with Inuit-owned companies for construction, maintenance materials– don’t go unnoticed when discussing alleviating the “humanitarian disaster that is NU housing”

    Plus, a ratio’d cost-matching policy where each DIO has to provide a relevant annual contribution for housing construction, maintenance in their region, before federal transfers kick-in, would ensure everyone’s got a stick in the fire per say ; (and if the DIOs are worried about non-Inuit benefiting… add a deed to the properties you help support)

    You might then see quality houses get built, and accountability come into place. And further ensure any discriminatory practices– like maintaining the units of government workers over those who are not, are remedied; aspects which, if you speak with those who live in the homes, are pretty important, but seem to go unnoticed with Mumilaaq, in the standing senate committee on Aboriginal peoples 2017’s report (though were amply mentioned, by many individuals, in their 2016 committee proceedings) and for many of the reporters here, in this space;

  5. Posted by Manapik on

    Nunavut Land Claim Agreement only benefits non beneficiaries. All they do is give us useless gadgets if we attend their meetings.

  6. Posted by Reality on

    It’s not a humanitarian disaster, it’s a matter of people having children they can’t afford to raise, and an increasing population in an area with no modern economy, and minimal willingness to participate in what economic activity there is. This is a totally unnatural situation, and it can’t go on forever. Houses aren’t the problem. Large numbers of people can’t live modern lives in remote areas with no economic activity. Small numbers of people can live a very difficult subsistence life in igloos and tents, but nobody wants to go back to that, even in small numbers.

    • Posted by TundraTom on

      Thank you Reality for pointing out the issues which people want to ignore. I worry that companies like Baffinland will decide there are to many barriers to do business in Nunavut and pull out, thereby reducing further economic opportunities for Inuit.

      Jim missed a couple of key points like the cost f construction (in excess of $400,000) on which little or no rent is collected. So housing are essentially sinkholes.

      And no, the arrears will never be collected. I believe there was a recent court case in Nunavut where they deemed any arrears that are older than 6 months cannot be collected as NHC and the LHOs did not try to collect in a timely manner.

      Can you name me more than 10 people who were evicted in the past year(s) for non-payment of rent – it doesn’t happen. Not looking to apply southern rules here but stating the obvious.

  7. Posted by Ocean occupants on

    NTI’s 2.5 $ billion dollars got nothing on the arctics housing monarchy ! in the beginning the land claims sure sounded good , claiming that Inuit would certainly get out of poverty , look what’s it done ! Made us Inuit even more poor.

    • Posted by Serious Question on

      When were Inuit ‘not poor’? Poverty is the natural state for humans, wealth is not.

    • Posted by anonymous on

      NTI, KIA tend to hold meetings after meetings, never come up with solving the housing issues up North. This has been on-going since KIA was first started some 43 (lost count) before April 1st, 1999, not sure when NTI happened. Same with the Legislature, they bring up the housing issue, again another on-going issue. One thing that bugs me is that, one year KIA decide to hold their AGM in Edmonton during a final football game -not sure what year that was. Housing issues, as well as shelters for the homeless etc. -will they be forever discussed at meetings with no real answers? I pray that Gjoa Haven will get a decent morgue in their community, not only there but other communities in Nunavut.

    • Posted by Enoch on

      All in all we’re just quarreling in the midst of actic desert trying to solve problems that isn’t related to the real issue. We were relocate, climatized and made us weak, now we rely on things that white people brought and the service is so costly in this harsh environment. In this time of change, I think we can amend NLCA to work with everyone, NLCA do nothing for us, it only transfers expenses from A to B thinking it will help mitigate property. Like they say, money don’t grow on trees, to be a working class citizens we need to allow colonailist work with us, if we keep blocking them we will get weaker and weaker with no jobs. White people are humans too, we all are humans, as human we need to lay off our sentimentality to lift young spirits with thier dreams and allow them to evolve. Our ancestors probably did the same, they changed, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Would you still use a rock for a hammer even if a whit guy offerd your iron hammer?

  8. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    I posted a comment on 10MAR21 on another article how Canada should provide decent living accommodations for everyone in Nunavut, basically in exchange for Nunavut occupying the land and exerting the country’s claim over the land and resources.
    Nunavut never has and likely never will make sense from a economic perspective. The Inuit way of subsistence living is going, going, almost gone. Without massive government support the current population of Nunavut would be in trouble, unable to support itself.
    Canada really doesn’t have a choice. The day is coming quite soon when Nunavut will no longer be viable even in it’s subsidized state. Look at the population increase, which causes a housing crisis, food insecurity crisis, education crisis, social service crisis, drug & substance abuse crisis, mental health & suicide crisis….need I go on?
    Time for the GN, NTI + RIOs to get together and bring the federal government in and get a long term plan together. Not a 5 year, 10 year plan. Start with a 20 year, 50 year, and 100 year plan.
    The NLCA and Nunavut as a self governing territory was a good idea, it just doesn’t work in practice.
    My thoughts. Fifteen to twenty modern planned communities. Good housing for everyone, good education, medical, policing. A small segment of the population can provide traditional harvesting activities, most others keep the community going or work at resource extraction projects throughout the territory.
    Community populations would need to be managed. Younger generations would get a good education and the GN would pay for trade schools, apprenticeships, or post secondary education in the south. What path each student selected would be up to them, but only those with jobs would be allowed to live full time in the community after secondary education.
    This would not come about overnight, it would take generations. And massive amounts of money, initially for education, housing, and basic living. But it does allow for the Inuit identity to be preserved along with many aspects of the culture.
    That’s only one idea, everyone will have their own. But one thing is clear, the status quo is not working.

    • Posted by iWonder on

      Sounds like an interesting Kibbutz, Old Trapper. It also seems to support a surplus of bad incentives, and a deficit of good ones.
      You say “Community populations would need to be managed. Younger generations would get a good education…” And it’s right to point to education to help alleviate our issues, but what incentives are there for the cultural pivot toward education under your plan? What would ensure population management? I might be wrong, but it seems a system of unlimited free or subsidized housing is more likely to yield the exact opposite. So, what mechanisms would prevent the entire system from becoming completely unmanageable, and eventually, even more a disaster than it is today?

      One major issue here is cultural adaptation and change. If you are offering a vision of a collection of technologically advanced modern communities it seems you must also promote the cultural features that make those kinds of communities possible. Granted, you have named a couple, but I’m curious how you plan to animate them? Unless what people really want is something else. And in the end, that question won’t be answered by either one of us.

  9. Posted by Manapik on

    Inuit were very prosperous before any foreigners ever arrived. Over the course of time our prosperity has been taken away. To this day more foreigners are arriving to Inuit land and keep trying to assimilate to their culture and ideals. Still dividing us Inuit.

    • Posted by Inuk Hunter on

      My grandmothers parents and other members straved to death because food was scears

    • Posted by Pork Pie on

      I’m sure there were times of relative prosperity for ancient Inuit as sure as there were times of depredation and for some, starvation, as stated above. The point is that for human societies the kind of wealth we know today is relatively new and not common when weighed against the past. Almost no one owned a home relative to the ones we have today, had a television, smart phone, skidoo or anything like it.

      I’m not making a value judgement on these things, but I will say that modernity comes at the cost of cultural adaptation to the systems that created that kind of wealth. When the first Qallunaat came to the arctic and traded for furs, ivory and other goods many Inuit flocked to buy their metals and guns, or to work for them because they too wanted the goods that made their lives easier; because life without those is harder and less secure. It was the introduction of the rifle that made shamanism obsolete (the reliance on magic was gone, guns made hunting easier than any amulet could), less than it was Christianity, granted the two are hard to separate.

      • Posted by Bangers & Mash on

        Very true, Pork Pie, and such has been the ways of trading for thousands of years, and
        will continue for many more.

    • Posted by Good Luck on

      Foreigners?? You consider your fellow Canadians to be foreigners? You are well prepared for a successful life in the Canadian economy. Good luck. /S

  10. Posted by hermann kliest on

    Housing is a world wide problem, more wo in a cold uncaring climate like Nunavut. there is a simple solution that GN can do, assess the working class, then make a grant of 40-50K so the banks can make a mortgage easier to employed in Nunavut, its much easier than begging to feds for more housing dollars. 1.5 mil grant total (Why not again? Look at HAP from eons ago) can go a long with ppl who may want mortgage with commercial banks, many winners all around. Less travel for Nunavut Housing Corp staff would save about 450K as will. GN can save $$$ too by eliminating their annual bonus to senior staff which is worth about 3 brand new houses in High Arctic (new unit worth (700K)? Goodness GN senior ppl have guts to talk about high prices considering,..

    • Posted by HAPpy Folks on

      Yes Hermann, the HAP programme was good for people and was welcomed by a lot of
      the successful applicants. Good for them !
      Some people sold their HAP houses for a tidy sum, but were broke again soon.
      I blame the housing for allowing so many loopholes in the system.
      I wonder if it was done that way on purpose ?
      Some folks borrowed money from the bank but did not pay back, so they lost their HAP

  11. Posted by Peter on

    That major problem is how the GN does its contracts to build social housing, when a small 2-3 bedroom house costs the GN over 600,000 to build something is wrong there, a basic house that cost about 200,000 costing three times that to build and these construction companies making so much money to build these social housing I think we can see why we can’t meet the demands to build enough housing in Nunavut.
    When a construction company can have their own planes and pilots to fly in and out of communities to change their Construction crews, you know they must be doing very well with their contracts with the GN.
    If the GN will not change its ways with their contracting then they should look at prefabricated homes to cut the huge expense in having these overprice construction companies building for them. Prefabricated homes would cost much less and time to build. Yes the construction companies would lose out on their gravy train but we would get more badly needed housing and catch up to the demands for housing.

    • Posted by By Design on

      This arrangement for high construction costs benefits wealthy inuit, who run NTI and the DIOs, and have “Inuit firms” that bid for these southern companies, with major kickbacks in exchange for the bidding advantage. It is by design, and it is why NTI does not want to get involved in housing: too much profit having government build it at 3 times what it should cost.

      • Posted by I don’t think so on

        I don’t think so, does NTI or the DIOs own Kudlik construction and all its subsidiaries? These companies the continually get the GN contracts are owned by people outside of Nunavut with a token head from Nunavut. The contracting with the GN is flawed and extremely expensive for the GN.
        With the responsibility being with the GN and the GN receiving hundreds of Millions to build housing it’s not the job of NTI, NTI can lobby to try and get more out of the GN to hire more Inuit, train more Inuit, get GN to build more capacity to work in these southern construction companies but the GN has done a terrible job for so long we have people looking at NTI to do it for them. GN needs to get its act together and make changes and build capacity with their trade schools and Arctic college.

        • Posted by I think so on

          The token head is an Inuit firm who receives anywhere from 1-20% of a project to do a bid. Since NTI controls the list of eligible Inuit firms, they allow this fiction to exist. A wealthy Inuk starts a company, or better yet a DIO has a dev Corp. They ‘bid’ on the project and then subcontract it all to a southern company. A small group of Inuit profit and the GN pays way more than it would without this bidding bonus in place.

          • Posted by Don’t think so on

            “GN pays” its GN controlled, NTI has a say but it all comes down to how the GN wants it done.
            The GN is the ones issuing the contracts, they have the system set up, it’s been like that since the beginning.
            I just don’t understand why some of you try to deflect the GNs responsibility to NTI when it’s under the GN?
            What would you suggest NTI do and what would you suggest the GN should do?
            The GN has the greatest responsibility here, the most money then any organization in Nunavut.
            It’s up to the GN to make improvements and changes to fulfill its objectives, if the GN doesn’t make improvements we are stuck in this situation of paying too much for less.

  12. Posted by Laurel McCorriston on

    I appreciate Jim Bell raising this issue because we cannot stop talking about this until something is done. And one of the things that can be done is for NHC to fulfill its blueprint and support other organizations that are trying to develop housing and housing services that support tenants to get and keep their housing. NHC can only get so many units online per year. Other organizations can be doing that, too. There’s a significant, healthy non-profit housing market south of 60. We need that here.

  13. Posted by TundraTom on

    Just wondering how Mayor Bell’s task force on housing/homelessness is going? Have they met? Ready to submit their report? We don’t need more studies on the housing situation in the North. We need action. And it should start with NTI. Our MP is trying to hold the Federal Govt (and rest of Canada) to account but what about NTI? Use some of those billions to address the systematic reasons. The finger pointing has to stop and the mirror of reflection should show Inuit they must solve this themselves.

    • Posted by Jerry on

      Don’t forget the GN, they have the largest responsibility and funding to build houses in Nunavut, they haven’t done a great job and need a major overhaul to clean things up, I don’t think we have cleared the +100 million in cost overruns by housing corp a decade ago. Things have not improved much with the GN/housing corp even with receiving millions and hundreds of millions to build more housing.

      I can never understand why NTI is looked at to fix this when everyone should be looking at the GN to fix their problem, no matter how much money the feds throw at the GN it is never enough for them, it gets misused and wasted.

  14. Posted by Get to Work on

    The “crisis” is lack of free or social housing. This line says it all to me: “under Nunavut’s sliding rent scale, you don’t have to pay that much until your income rises to $80,000.”.
    Why bother to work or buy a house? Paying $60 for rent will put those earning $80,000 with the City workforce or at the GN at an effective $110,000+ annual income with the amount of rent saved. Most of the units I see in Iqaluit have $80,000 trucks and multiple new sleds there. Seems like many people are scamming the system, which doesn’t police itself.
    Time for them to come down hard on who qualifies for social housing and start only making it available for people who are actually destitute, not those that work 3 months or the year or can’t be bothered to vacate despite earning high five-figure salaries.

    • Posted by Paradigm Shift on

      At the very least, instead of falling back on blame for how people respond to the system, we need to acknowledge how the structure of the system itself incentivizes the issues and problems pointed out here.

  15. Posted by Enoch on

    I believe NLCA can be improved(amended)

    Connecting north and south tightly can mitigate ground milage cover deficiency. Yes, I think we have to change the map of nunavut. I understand the sentimentality of ones provinces but there is always a way to agree. Analytics and arithmetic knows the cost to run a rural colonial town and If the numbers are exceptional, the opportunity is here. We can improve the lives upnorth and the south, with more optimal grids connecting tourists and artist together, we can improving GDP of canada.
    With effective strategy and optimistic spirit, we can achieve to make Manitobans agree. As an agreement, we can improve or enlarge railway and buy more trains if the number of tourist grow. If Churchill was the capital of nunvat, the housing crises would be fixed and essential services provided less costly. with rewriting NLCA, we will agree with something. With tax, tax cuts, commission, Manitoba will not be left unsatified Even give part of the land or both, Churchill is a vital wall we need to break in either to make this deal work. On  a NLCA we can mandate legal housing services buy special interest and care. If anyone wants to relocate, they will be provided special services and allow them even if they have not lived in Churchill. With those displacement issues, they can be provided social service agents in there need. So much opportunity for small business, travel, and more excess services, our depth would be minimized. With contractors and general service, tourist buying and people selling, improving algaculture advertisement to the globe, I think it would be a lot better then spending handred of millions money for subsidies.
    If the prediction is correct, Manitoba can have tax cut if they signed the deal, if it does not sow much, I think we can think of another way. I don’t understand how housing deals with its mandatory platform when it comes to architectural things, I think laws should be founded by this new principle. All I’m saying is this can make people more independent by making them more responsible, yes there are dangers and risk but when you live I a world like this,
    What moral are we preserving? It does seem to help… As human we are more happy when we are independent and that what we don’t have. psychologically, people are prone to balance their ethics when it comes to problems, some understand or some will get mad over it, over all most of them can’t wait till summer, which mean there a little open spot in there harts.

         These changes can make things more dangerous but if it help them and them being accountable, is it OK? I’m not talking about turning northern parts of canada is to third world slum houses, some laws are just too ridiculous, loopholes, weak spots and a lot of unproductivity. With good deal, we can allow Pipe line industries to work on mining business’s, general service, or for any governments private intress.

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