Good evening, and thank you, Mr. Chair and standing committee, for the opportunity to speak on such an important issue as urban, rural and northern indigenous housing.
My name is Julia Christensen, and I hold a Canada research chair in northern governance and public policy at Memorial University. I'm joining you remotely from beautiful St. John's, which is situated on the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk. It is also a city, a place of significance for Inuit, Innu and Mi'kmaq from across the province. I myself was born and raised on Chief Drygeese territory in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
Over the past 14 years, I have researched, collaborated and written extensively on northern housing, homelessness, rural-urban mobility and the social determinants of health. I'm also the project director for At Home in the North, a CMHC and SSHRC-funded partnership under Canada's collaborative housing research network.
Today I wish to speak with you about the persistent northern housing crisis and the ways in which it underlines the emergence of hidden and visible forms of homelessness in northern Canada. When we talk about the northern housing crisis, we are in reality talking about a chronic housing need that has persisted since the first northern housing programs were rolled out in the mid-20th century.
Northern housing, therefore, has been defined from the beginning by inadequacy and unaffordability. It's this landscape of housing need that underlies the persistence of overcrowding, couch surfing and hidden homelessness, particularly in northern hamlets and villages, and has thus pushed a significant number of family homes into acting as de facto shelters.
However, I also want to bring attention to the ways in which the northern housing crisis manifests itself in northen towns and cities. All too often, the particular housing challenges faced by northern towns and cities are overlooked because their population size and density do not look conventionally urban. However, they serve many of the same roles as cities in southern Canada, acting as administrative, economic, transportation and social and health service hubs for vast northern regions.
Since the late 1990s, visible homelessness has emerged as a significant social concern in territorial capitals as well as regional centres across the provincial north.
In my own research, intergenerational trauma related to residential school and the child welfare system is cited as a key social determinant of health that has had adverse affects on access to and sustainability of northern housing options. Moreover, point-in-time counts and other studies at the community and regional scales have illustrated that the majority of men and women experiencing homelessness in northern urban centres have moved there from outlying smaller northern communities.
Core housing need in smaller northern communities, combined with a need for resources and supports available in northern urban centres, is a key factor that frames the rural-urban movement of northerners experiencing homelessness. Therefore, any comprehensive approach to understanding northern indigenous housing needs must take into account the dynamics of housing insecurity in smaller communities as well as regional centres, and the complex interconnections between the two, which include not just access to housing but also access to key social supports and health services.
In northern towns and cities, the public sector is often the main, if not the only, provider of affordable housing, yet the demand far exceeds the supply. Moreover, the bulk of public housing units are intended for families, and therefore units for single adults are incredibly limited. The private rental market thus becomes the main source of housing for low-income single adults. However, a confluence of factors, including rents that are among the highest in Canada and the dominance of a very small number of private rental companies in northern centres, means that affordable and accessible private rental options are often out of reach.
There is tremendous resiliency, innovation and hope, however. There have been some significant developments in the areas of Housing First and transitional housing through collaborations among territorial, municipal and indigenous governments in the non-profit sector. However, these programs are not designed or funded to be long-term supportive housing options, even though many residents of these programs, as well as the housing program providers, have identified that long-term supportive housing is needed for the vast majority of program users.
Another area of significant promise is the number of community-led housing programs that have been developed and implemented under indigenous community and regional self-governments. Examples of this can be found in Nunatsiavut, as well as through the K'asho Got'ine Housing Society in Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories. However, the resources available to communities differ widely, and there are struggles with chronic under-resourcing for effective and sustainable program delivery.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought chronic northern housing need under a harsh new light and has made it undeniable that housing is health care. Funding has been quickly dedicated to temporarily house the homeless in emergency and overflow shelters, supportive housing and managed alcohol programs, or hotel rooms.
Many of these measures are temporary. There is an urgent need to support northern indigenous peoples and communities in self-determining northern housing strategies that ensure we learn from the pandemic, cultivate real and sustainable change, and do not simply return to the status quo.
Thank you. Marsi. Nakurmiik.