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SQUEEZE PLAY - Inuit housing reaches critical stage


Emanuel Lowi, Windspeaker Contributor, INUKJUAK, Que.







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Sometimes it gets so crowded in Meeko Nastapoka's place that she has to move into the canvas tent she's pitched out back.

She has been a widow since 1980, and her home would be large enough if she shared it with just her own children - or even with her grandchildren too.

But after 11 years of renting the house, Nastapoka, now 70, lives here with 14 other family members. There is just no room left.

"I had more privacy when I lived in an igloo," she said, recalling how her family first moved from the tundra to this growing northern village in 1963 to be closer to the church, the trading post and the federal school.

"I like being close to my family, too, but those toys today make a lot of noise." The children don't always oblige when she pleads for some peace and quiet.

If this was anywhere else in Quebec, Nastapoka could probably rent a small apartment for herself, or perhaps ask her two married grandsons to move elsewhere with their wives and children. But in Quebec's Inuit villages there are no surplus apartments for rent.

Each of the 14 communities has a long waiting list of people - mostly young adults and newlywed couples - who've been trying to rent an apartment or house for years. While they wait, they crowed together as best they can.

In 1975, when the James Bay agreement codified Aboriginal rights and government obligations in northern Quebec, the Inuit decided not to manage their communities like Indian reserves, with ethnic-based governments. They chose instead to become Canadian taxpayers living in officially non-ethnic municipalities. They were promised continued access to federal and provincial programs available to all other Canadian Aboriginal people, including the provision of publicly assisted housing.

The rugged hunters of the tundra became a nation of tenants renting from the government.

"Who is responsible for our housing now?" Nastapoka asked, as her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren played nearby. "Is it Canada or Quebec?"

Nastapoka's question is at the basis of a conflict between the Inuit and Canada so bitter that, for the first time since the 1975 treaty was signed, the two sides have gone to arbitration to solve their dispute. Their first meeting to tackle the issue was held in Montreal on Jan. 14.

The 1975 treaty named the federal government as the provider of all Inuit housing. But in a pattern repeated throughout numerous areas of federal jurisdiction, as the mantra of "decentralized government" echoed from sea to sea, in 1981 Ottawa paid Quebec to take over the federal promise of Inuit public housing. The deal was worth $72 million to the province, Ottawa was off the hook and Quebec never had to report to Canada how the housing program was delivered.

The Inuit say they were never consulted and never agreed to the deal, but by 1995 the money was all spent and the last houses were built, largely by workers imported from southern Quebec.

While Canadians worry about declining national standards in health care, education and the labor market due to Ottawa's attempts to off-load its responsibilities onto the provinces, in northern Quebec the Inuit are being subjected to a variety of health and social ills that would cripple the average southern family.

"We just had a case where an old lady was beaten badly by her son-in-law after she complained about the noise his kids were making,"said one policeman.

The Inuit birthrate is twice the Quebec average, so the overcrowding compounds yearly. Three generations in one home is normal; four generations - as at Nastapoka's house - is becoming very common. Some five-bedroom homes house 18 or 20 residents, living four to a room, with others sometimes sleeping on mattresses in common areas.

When violent conflicts arise, overcrowding makes finding alternative shelter for the victims difficult. With nowhere else to go, the battered grandmother was placed with a family that takes in foster children. The son-in-law remains in the family home wile awaiting trial on assault charges.

"We're seeing a very rapid deterioration of the situation," said Dr. Serge Dery, director of public health for the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services. "Would we accept this in the south? I don't think so."

Dery points to the region's high rates of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, which strikes Quebec Inuit at rates 14.5 per cent higher than the rest of the province. Epidemics of scabies - a louse-like pest - and contagious childhood impetigo spread through households overnight.

Public-housing guidelines from the Societe d'Habitation du Quebec state that each resident over the age of 17 should have his or her own room. In northern Quebec, these rules are conveniently ignored.

In Kuujjuaq, the region's largest town, 100 new houses are needed if the community is to meet the provincial standards. In Inukjuak, where Nastapoka lives, 50 houses or apartments are required. The remaining 12 villages have similar needs, and authorities claim that a total of 425 families are waiting for new houses.

The situation is particularly frustrating for the Inuit of Kuujjuaraapik. Their town is the twin of the Cree village of Whapmagoostui. Together the two communities are also known as Great Whale River, the place targeted by Hydro-Quebec's aborted dam project in the 1990s.

Because the Cree village, like all Indian communities, is on reserve land, housing for the 600 Crees continues to be financed by Ottawa. The federally funded houses have basements, piped-in water and southern-style sewage systems. While there is overcrowding on the Cree side and a construction backlog, too, funding has not dried up and six to 10 new homes are built there every year by local laborers.

On the Inuit side of town, where Ottawa claims it has no responsibility and Quebec says it has no money, no houses are being built and the overcrowding increases. None of the existing Inuit houses have basements and all rely on drinking water deliverd and sewage removed by truck daily.

While social relations between the two Aboriginal groups in town remain friendly, politically they are divided and the housing disparities are partly to blame.

"People are pissed off," said Myva Niviaxie, a housing administrator in Kuujjuaraapik. "Some are helping each other by swapping houses when their kids move to another town. We have to provide stability for families somehow."

But those Inuit who move to neighboring villages for work or relationships face a rude shock when they try to move back home. They are shut out of the housing network for years.

"We just can't provide them with a home," Niviaxie said "It's as simple as that." He has more than 30 requests for housing on file now. No new homes are on the way.

With most of the Inuit organizations maintaining large offices in Montreal, some of the best and brightest move south for a few years' work experience. These people are effectively trapped in the south by the housing shortage in the north. The prospect of sharing lodgings with a dozen or more family members discourages them from leaving behind Montreal's relative comforts, worsening the chronic brain-drain that plagues the Arctic villages.

"We're missing some good people who could benefit our community," said Davidee Kumarluk, who works with at-risk youth in Kuujjuaraapik.

But perhaps the most chilling impact of overcrowding might be interpreted from the rising rate of suicide among young Inuit. In 1996 - the last year from which suicide statistics are available and, coincidentally, the first year after provincial housing construction ended - the Inuit suicide rate doubled its previous average rate. The hardest-hit group was men between the ages of 20 and 24, the age of many who have applied in vain for housing.

Quebec's Inuit suicide rate is more than seven times higher than the provincial rate. Suicide remains rare among the Crees, with less than half the rate of non-Aboriginal Quebecers.

While no direct correlaton between overcrowding and suicide can be drawn, it is widely assumed that hopelessness about achieving an autonomous lifestyle and independent social relation is a factor in the depression that can sometimes lead to suicide.

Amid the bleak scenarios, the leader of Quebec's Inuit is still willing to give Ottawa a chance at solving the problem. In mid-January, as dignitaries waited in Kuujjuaq for the weather to clear so they could visit the avalanche site at Kangiqsuallujjuaq, Makivik Corporation president Pita Aatami met informally with federal Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart, Quebec deputy premier Bernard Landry and Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

They discussed the housing situation, and Aatami said they were open to the discussion.

"I told them we weren't part of the 1981 transfer agreement, that we follow the James Bay Agreement that we signed in 1975."

He says he'll wait to see how the formal dispute resolution process works out before considering other measures.

Meeko Nastapoka is waiting, too. Meanwhile, the four adult women in the house - her stepdaughter, two daughters-in-law and herself - sometimes quarrel about who gets to take a bath first, or whose laundry gets done when the water starts running low.

"I'd like at least one more house," she said as she cuddled her great-granddaughter. "At least for my grandson and his family."

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