Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Housing Crisis in Canada's Arctic

Canadian Press: In the northern capital city of Iqaluit in Nunavut, Jimmy Papatsie lives with his brother, seven children and four adults in a five-bedroom home.

"It's good," said Papatsie, 32.

He knows he's one of the lucky ones. The housing situation is more desperate for many others.

"I've been on the streets for 12 years," said Oopooteeataggoyak, 52.

He is barred from the local homeless shelter but a friend has given him and several others a trailer where they can spend the winter. Being homeless in one of the harshest climates on the planet is a desperate situation.

"You have to be tough," Oopooteeataggoyak said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his first visit to the Far North on the weekend, promising more military spending to assert Canada's sovereignty over Arctic waters.
The money was welcomed, but many believe federal funds would be better spent on the urgent social needs of northern residents, whose long-time presence is Canada's strongest claim to ownership of the Arctic.

Iqaluit alone needs 200 to 300 more units just to clear the current shortfall in social housing. The territorial government needs another 150 housing units for staff.

"You have families living in bedrooms, essentially, rather than having their own space," said Peter Scott, president of the Nunavut Housing Corp. "There's a lot of sites where you've got three, maybe four families occupying the same three-or four-bedroom unit."

Pressed on the social needs of the northern territory, Harper said his government committed $200 million for housing in Nunavut in its last budget.

"The premier identified that to me even before taking office. . . as the No. 1 priority in this territory and that's why we made it our major incremental funding commitment in the budget," Harper said.

Scott welcomed the investment, but said the corporation would need more than $2 billion today just to clear up the current shortage, due to the exorbitant cost of building supplies in the treeless tundra. Nunavut is not only Canada's youngest territory, it has the youngest average population and it's growing rapidly. The birthrate is nearly double the Canadian average, according to Statistics Canada.

Overcrowding leads to the spread of communicable diseases, particularly lung ailments, and the territory has the highest rate of violent crime per capita in Canada.

"That is a factor," Nancy Campbell, spokeswoman for the territorial Department of Health and Social Services, said of the overcrowding. "We have a lot of respiratory challenges on the health front."

The infection rate for tuberculosis, largely considered a Third World disease, is beginning to stabilize but TB, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (a potent lung infection) can spread like wildfire because of the close proximity in which many families are forced to live.

Premier Paul Okalik said he raised all these issues with Harper over the weekend.

"He realizes we're far behind in terms of the rest of the country and he wants to deal with these matters," Okalik told reporters.

But the Nunavut leader isn't looking for the feds to fix these problems. He wants Ottawa to devolve responsibilities to the territorial government to manage its own funding, like the provinces do.

"I pressed him hard on devolution," Okalik said.

If it doesn't move ahead soon, there is a concern the "vast economic potential" of the North, as Harper called it, could become an economic reality that will benefit the rest of Canada more than Nunavut itself.

"We're very fortunate that oil and gas hasn't been touched, really, so that's why I'm pressing hard for a devolution agreement so we can manage and benefit from it," Okalik said.

The territory would like an agreement in place by the next territorial election but the federal government hasn't appointed a negotiator yet and time is running out. Okalik is trying to be patient.

"If the mandate is comprehensive enough, we can move quite quickly," he said. "I told (federal Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim) Prentice in the spring, 'Look, as long as you have a good mandate, I can wait a little longer, but if your mandate is going to come in short of our expectations, I'm going to be quite frustrated.' "

But at the moment, the focus for Ottawa seems to be on Canada's stake in the northern sea.

"We have ignored the Arctic for so long and in so many respects," said Dr. John England, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Alberta and one of six national research chairs on the North.

The sudden "neo-colonial" interest in the region has the potential to bring many changes, said England, who has conducted research in some of the furthest reaches of the Arctic over the past four decades.

"Development has the potential to roll over a lot of other interests," he warned, and bring a lot of changes to the culture and lifestyle of northern residents.

To see images of Iqaluit as well as a travel report there, see Trip to Iqaluit.

See Canadian Arctic Art at Free Spirit Gallery.

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