The continued shortage of accessible, affordable, high-quality housing in Canada’s North comes as no surprise to the people who live here.
Now, the federal government’s Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAN) is studying the effects of this housing shortage on Indigenous people.
On Tuesday, Northwest Territories Minister responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation and Homelessness, Paulie Chinna, was one of the witnesses. She spoke to the committee about the state of the housing shortage in the Northwest Territories, its disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples and what the federal government could do to help.
“I see the effects of housing shortages on northern Aboriginal people every day, whether it’s the long waiting list for social housing in most small communities or encountering under-housed people in streets of Yellowknife,” Chinna said.
Chinna told the committee that the Northwest Territories faces particular challenges when it comes to public housing.
There are constraints on the construction season due to the short seasonal window for construction and shipping materials, and the additional costs that come with “remote communities, harsh weather conditions and reliable transport infrastructure limited” in the North.
In total, she said the territory’s reliance on public housing is the second highest of any Canadian jurisdiction, after Nunavut.
Chinna told the committee that there are 2,600 public housing units spread across the 33 communities in the Northwest Territories, but most of them are decades old. Some suffer from environmental damage, such as erosion and mold. Many are also overcrowded, which has been a concern with COVID-19.
“While significant progress is being made in adding new social housing, with the help of the federal government over the past few years, the need is vast and requires sustained effort,” Chinna said.
Chinna asked committee members to consider various federal policies that could help address parts of the housing crisis.
This could include “sustained, multi-year capital funding to increase the stock of new social housing,” reversing the federal decision to cut operating funding for public housing and giving local and territorial governments more power over how to spend the ‘money.
A call for more and more flexible funding
“Federal government funding for housing [Government of the Northwest Territories] must be flexible enough for the GNWT to determine its own priorities, which may be different from those of southern jurisdictions,” Chinna said.
She also said the federal government should make it easier for communities to access funding earmarked for public housing. At present, she says they face “significant hurdles” in getting money that has already been earmarked to help them.
“We have Indigenous organizations and representatives trying to access this funding, and they don’t have the capacity to submit these proposals in the future,” she said.
After the first part of Tuesday’s committee session, Chinna was joined by Igloolik Housing Association President Raigili Amaaq and Nunavut Housing Corporation President and CEO Eiryn Devereaux. Many MPs reacted dramatically to what they heard about the long-running housing crisis in the North.
“A colossal humanitarian failure”
“I know that we all agree, no matter what party we come from or what region we represent, that safe, secure and affordable housing is essential to the quality of life, the standard of living [and] to health outcomes,” said Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs.
“I must confess that I sit here as a Conservative who believes in limited government and responsible spending, but I am shocked and disturbed by what is clearly a colossal humanitarian failure to provide adequate housing for our fellow Canadians. in northern and remote communities.
Stubbs then asked if partnerships with the private sector and the community could help alleviate some of the housing shortage.
Marilène Gill, who represents the riding of Manicouagan in Quebec, also said that “of course, everyone wants to cooperate” to increase the supply of social housing in the North.
“This is one of our first meetings, but we immediately learn how important this issue is for First Nations,” she said.
Gill then asked if more funding would be enough to make progress, or if northern communities would need more infrastructure and capacity to build and maintain their own homes as well.
Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod highlighted the complexity of the issue. While the political will to fix the problem will no doubt help, he said, the housing shortage is not going to disappear overnight.
“We all know it won’t be an easy fix,” he said. “We all know that there is no silver bullet to solving the problem. We have 33 communities, and each of them faces challenges and there is no single solution.”