While a holiday lunch is being served behind her, Andrea Carter sits at one of the tables and talks about her family’s struggle with homelessness.
Carter is in the crammed basement of a local housing support centre in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Vanier – also known as “Little Nunavut.”
Food bank staples – bread, eggs, cereal – lay on the table in front of her.
The 39-year-old Inuk mother of three hails from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut: a 1,100-person hamlet situated 250-km above the Arctic Circle.
She moved to Ottawa in 2001 for the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, a post-secondary partnership with local institutions that facilitates Inuit-targeted higher education and career training.
“I graduated in 2002,” she says, “and I decided to stay after I graduated because there was more resources down here and more opportunities.”
Two of her three daughters (16, 12, and three) were born in the city.
But home and family beckoned.
“And then back in 2011, I tried to move back to Gjoa Haven with my daughters. But, because of lack of housing, those four years we were back there we were really struggling. Just moving from house to house, family to family. I just decided to come back here three years ago, so I’ve been back since.”
Despite holding down a job and owning an education, Carter says she struggled with exorbitant food prices and overcrowding.
“We were just moving from family to family. It was a big toll on my daughters too. It would get stressful and frustrating at times living with so many different people in the house.”
The stress and frustration eventually became too heavy. After her youngest daughter was born, she couldn’t take it anymore.
“I just came back with nothing, just with my daughters. When we came back to Ottawa we stayed in a motel for a little bit and then we were moved to a family shelter. And we stayed at the family shelter until we got our own place, and we’ve been at our house since then.”
Finally with a place of her own, Carter planned to spend the holidays with her family – happy – after visiting the Christmas food bank.
“It’s good, I like it. You know, I wish I really could be at home, but right now we have our own place and we’re settled. So it’s going pretty good so far.”
Carter spent most of the last decade homeless.
She divided the years almost equally between her rural Nunavut hometown and Ottawa’s family shelter system.
Both are overcrowded – and both are facing a housing crisis.
In fact, Ottawa City Council will vote later this month whether to declare an official homelessness and affordable housing state of emergency.
Nunavut’s struggles have been documented.
It can be an ironic reality: those who, like Carter, leave one crisis behind may not expect to face an entirely different crisis in the city.
Situation in the south
There were 1,280 Inuit in Ottawa-Gatineau in 2016, according to the census.
But Tungasuvvingat Inuit – a provincial service provider for Inuit referred to simply as TI – estimates the population is at least double that, and might be as high as 7,000.
Monika Tochman, manager of TI’s housing support programs, describes the situation in Ottawa’s homeless shelters as “beyond a crisis” or “a crisis on steroids.”
“I would use a stronger word” to describe what families like Carter’s face, she says.
“Where are they living? They’re living in overflow beds, which are called motels – and very rundown motels – across the city that the city uses as overflow beds. It is difficult to call it a crisis when you have a family with young children with no access to a kitchen, living in rooms for years on end in order to gain access to social housing.”
This is “pretty typical,” particularly during winter months, says Shelley VanBuskirk, the city’s manager of housing services.
Her department operates the city’s only family shelter and contracts with motels and hotels to accommodate overflow.
“We have probably upwards of about 350 families in hotels and motels across the city,” she says. Ottawa’s Auditor General reported that the city spent $9.3 million on these emergency shelter arrangements in 2018, when there were 282 families in motels and hotels.
Later this month, City Council will decide whether to act. A motion, if passed, will “officially declare an Affordable Housing and Homelessness Emergency” and acknowledge that Ottawa “does not possess the resources to manage this crisis alone.”
The motion also demands a specific strategy to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people among Ottawa’s homeless population. It cites a 2018 study that found Indigenous people made up roughly two-and-a-half per cent of Ottawa’s population, yet accounted for 25 per cent of the city’s homeless population.
Tochman says even this striking statistic is probably low.
“We estimate that the number is closer to around 40 to 45 per cent of Indigenous people, and it’s simply because people don’t self-identify” when they book into shelters, she says.
VanBuskirk agrees “there’s real issues around self-identification.” Some refuse to identify as Indigenous because they fear discrimination, racism, and maltreatment.
The situation is exacerbated by a lack of clear statistics specific to Inuit homelessness.
“A lot of Indigenous people may not access the shelter system. They may stay with family and friends in overcrowded situations,” says VanBuskirk.
“We don’t have a good idea of Inuit people who may be couch-surfing and not really have that security of tenancy.”
Tochman says accurate numbers are hard to come by, but her approximations highlight how First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are disproportionately impacted by Ottawa’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
“Specifically in Ottawa,” she says, “we estimate that around 20 per cent of individuals across the shelters are Inuit.”
Life at an Ottawa shelter
Jonah Kadluk is one of those individuals.
Half-completed puzzles sit on tables in his cluttered room. Lego and toys, which he intends to give his kids (seven, five, and two), pile up on the dresser. He’s been here for two months, homeless for two years.
Although his name is not on any lease, Ottawa is home for Kadluk, a 31-year-old Inuk from Nunavut.
“I’m sitting here and I’m eating by myself. It’d be nice to have a visitor or somebody in the room. It’s just dwelling,” he says of life in the shelter.
“They want me to clean my room and I just feel uncomfortable with that because it looks like nobody’s been here, like not even me. So I get frustrated.”
He came to Ottawa from Yellowknife, where he grew up, with his mother and her boyfriend in 2005.
A personal battle with addiction and depression brought him to the streets.
“I just didn’t care about anything, not even myself,” he says of his struggle.
But now he wants to turn things around.
“I’m mostly trying to better myself in the mornings, with programs and stuff,” says Kadluk.
He monitors his health, and – if it was summer – he’d work landscaping.
A case worker from TI is trying to find him an apartment. But it’s hard.
“It just sucks being here,” he admits.
One of Tom Hogan’s Eastern Woodlands style paintings hangs down the hall from Jonah’s room in the Ottawa Mission homeless shelter.
Hogan was an Ojibway artist and former client at the Mission. He died in 2015.
“It’s not just art,” says Aileen Leo, the shelter’s communications director.
“It’s about recognizing who each person is and having unconditional acceptance. So you can be anybody here.”
Leo says the Mission has a limited number of residential rooms, like Jonah’s, available for hospice or addiction and trauma services. It has another 179 beds set up dorm-room style in rooms that sleep eight. Mats are laid out on the basement chapel because the shelter is over capacity. 20 men will sleep on the floor next to each other to escape the January cold.
Working at the Mission brings Leo face to face with what she calls “the absolutely horrible, awful burden of Indigenous homelessness in Ottawa.”
She, too, can’t provide reliable statistics specific to Inuit homelessness, but she says the city’s numbers are “probably low.” She says four out of the Mission’s 21 hospice beds – or 19 per cent – were occupied by Inuit clients when she first joined.
“People who are Inuit come to Ottawa for all sorts of reasons – employment, education, medical care – and then they end up falling through the cracks here.”
Kadluk hopes to climb out from those cracks. He wants to return north to visit family, including a niece he hasn’t met.
“I want to go back up to Igloolik and go hunting with my brother. He lives in Igloolik. Pretty much just for a visit. I wouldn’t want to stay,” he says. “The housing situation is a mess. There could be a house where they have like 12 family members.”
“Ottawa is home for me, though. I can’t really picture myself anywhere else because my kids are here.”
Situation in Nunavut
Patterk Netser doesn’t mince words when describing the situation in his territory.
As Nunavut’s minister responsible for the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC), he says his role is to address what he deems an acute housing crisis.
“We have a severe acute housing crisis right now. Our estimated needs right now are 3500 units to address our current need and 97 units per year after that to keep up with population growth. So we’re really in a crisis here – and, with our aging stock, we really do need some help.”
Almost four years ago, NHC President Terry Audla came to Ottawa, where he asked for the federal government to commit to a ten-year housing funding plan.
Audla’s 2016 report states that over half of Nunavut’s residents, or Nunavummiut, lived in social housing. 38 per cent of these social housing residents lived in overcrowded conditions, but the figure was up to 78 per cent in some communities.
It also cost $500,000 to build a single housing unit, the report estimates. At this price – which doesn’t account for four years of inflation – Nunavut would require an immediate injection of $1.75 billion, plus $485 million distributed evenly over ten years to address housing needs.
The request was answered. In 2017, Justin Trudeau’s government pledged $240 million over ten years. The feds and the territory inked the deal in 2019.
“It’s stable funding for the next ten years,” Netser remarks, “so we know what we’re getting. But still, we need a lot more than that.”
“I really do sympathize” with those moving south, he says.
“But with the limited funding that we receive from the federal government, we just can’t address that current need. And I really do sympathize with them.”
Netser says his talks with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation left him “hopeful” for the future.
If governments could pull through, Carter says she’d move home in an instant.
“I think a lot of people would still be at home if it wasn’t [for] lack of housing. That’s where I want to be.”
Donna Patrick is a non-Indigenous social scientist who has worked with Inuk communities for most of the last two decades. She is Carleton’s interim director of Northern Studies graduate programs.
Inuit are “seeking a better future” in cities, she says. “They’re seeking a promise of a better life.” This promise looks like better access to healthcare, opportunity, education, resources, employment, and pre-existing family networks in cities.
But some run into “linguistic and cultural barriers” that can make life in the city as – if not more – difficult than the one they leave behind.
Patrick says it’s important to place the growth of urban Inuk communities in Canada within the context of the changing Arctic and the ongoing effects of colonization.
Housing is only one piece of a complicated puzzle.
But, as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) states, Inuit face an affordable housing “national crisis” which many other serious issues can be traced back to.
“The housing crisis, as demonstrated by consistently poor socio-economic outcomes, continues to represent a major impediment to healthy living, education and employment for Inuit,” reads the national organization’s 2019 housing strategy.
While more money is needed, policy makers need to use their imagination “to maximize the resources one has available, but also to increase those resources to make sure there’s enough of the social services for people in the north,” says Patrick.
“A lag in good social policy in the north” is interconnected with “lack of policy in the city dealing with Inuit people specifically,” she says.
Cities “need to make sure Inuit are taken into account – and that’s what the big barrier is in the south – to recognize that there’s something specific about the Inuit community that needs to be addressed. Because I don’t think that the movement to the south is going to lessen any.”
“I think they’re here to stay. I think people are coming and a lot of Inuit are here to stay.”
“We’re going to have to, as uncomfortable as this statement will be for some folks to hear, use the Truth and Reconciliation Commission guidance to work on the deeper issues underlying the disproportionate representation of not just Indigenous but Inuit people in particular. We’re going to have to take into account Inuit people’s particular experience as related to colonization in this country. This is an uncomfortable, so far, in Ottawa, the federal capital of this country, a difficult conversation to be had.”
Ottawa is working on it, VanBuskirk says.
“The city has made a commitment to reconciliation,” she says. “I think it’s important that they’re not just words on a piece of a paper, that through the delivery of city services including housing we make sure we have that lens on the funding we have, on the programs and services that we create.”
The city’s ten-year plan to address homelessness includes a section on Indigenous homelessness. But it’s just a “road map,” VanBuskirk says.
As Ottawa’s overcrowded shelter population grows, those Inuit living in the system or stuck on years-long waitlists for social housing will have to wait and see where that road map leads.