Building housing solutions for Indigenous residents living in northern communities to have a place to call home
“It is a heavy weight to bear, seeing our people struggling and hurting. We see our people being mistreated… Everyone deserves to have a home. With effort and collaboration between networks with the same goal, and by creating programs that are culturally appropriate in the North, we can help our people to be sheltered and have a place to call home.” Janine Harvey and Lisa Alikamik
For Indigenous peoples living in Canada’s rural, remote and northern communities, colonial displacement, dislocation, and underinvestment have created a legacy of deeply unaffordable and inadequate housing. Inuit communities in the northern territories, in particular, face among the worst housing conditions in the country, yet studies of these acute problems have been managed by settler researchers and methods.
To address that oversight Janine Harvey and Lisa Alikamik, two Inuit right to housing advocates, spent a year travelling to communities across the Northwest Territories to undertake culturally appropriate interviews with Indigenous leaders and community members and gather their stories and experiences of finding affordable, safe, and secure housing in the North.
That intensive collaboration produced Stark Truths: Indigenous Housing Realities & Solutions in Northern, Remote Communities. Written in partnership with the National Right to Housing Network and with funding from the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, the report details conditions that include human right violations and makes 17 recommendations focused on Indigenous-led policies, procedures and infrastructure that prioritize the need for governments to ensure that adequate housing is available for all.
The project was partly informed by Janine Harvey’s experience working in Yellowknife and the recognition that Indigenous voices on housing weren’t being heard because locals had little faith in staff – often settlers from the South – and were afraid of commenting on policies or conditions for fear of consequences, such as being blacklisted from public housing.
“I think it was talking to my own people and gaining their trust that made me wonder: what if I started asking these questions and doing it in a culturally appropriate way?” says Harvey of her motivation for the project. “If I did a report, what would the difference be?”
An essential element of the approximately 60 individual interviews and meetings held by Harvey and Alikmak in Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Ulukhaktok was approaching individuals and communities in a respectful and appropriate manner. Gatherings included culturally appropriate elements, such as spaces for sewing and art, to make the events feel comfortable so participants would be more likely to gather, connect and share.
Both report authors had deep roots in their communities – Harvey founded the Tahiuqtiit Women’s Society in Ulukhaktok and Alikmak is an artist and local leader – as well as years of trust, relationship-building and shared understanding which made community members more receptive to their inquiries. It was important to approach these housing conversations with sensitivity, patience and confidentiality.
“I can tell you many of these conversations were not easy,” says Harvey. “There was a lot of hugging and a lot of compassion that went into this work. And it made it really, really meaningful for both sides. People would tell us ‘I’m so glad you’re here and you’re doing this, I could finally talk to somebody in a real way and not feel scared.’”
The release of the report attracted media attention across the country, with many of the stories focusing on the horrific condition of housing, discrimination faced by Indigenous tenants, and a lack of transitional and supportive housing. (Read the CTV report here.) Stark Truths also encouraged NWT Housing, the provincial housing provider, to review their policies and procedures. (Harvey and Alikamik are still waiting for the results of that review.)
As for Janine Harvey, her work to improve Northern housing conditions and ensure the voices of the Inuit community are heard continues. As Executive Director of Tahiuqtiit Women’s Society, she is presently working to establish a shelter and create policies and procedures to help Inuit women and children fleeing family violence. She hopes the approach and guidelines will be adopted by other Inuit communities and offer a culturally sensitive alternative to seeking the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or social services.
“We’re creating solutions [specific to] the Inuit culture, because in the Arctic we need really unique policies and procedures that relate to our Inuit culture,” says Harvey. “People are used to this work coming down from the government, so, there’s some struggles trying to manage and learn and build local capacity. I’ll continue to do this work as long as the funding’s available.”
You can read a copy of Stark Truths here.
The National Right to Housing Network (NRHN) is a broad-based, grassroots civil society network established to fully realize the right to adequate housing in Canada. Their mandate is to advise and strengthen Canada’s infrastructure to implement and grow a commitment to housing as a fundamental human right and build a community-based movement and culture that supports meaningful implementation of that right. To read more about NRHN visit their website.