The Effects of Poverty in Canada’s North

Inuit have lived in Canada’s North for thousands of years, but over the last several decades have experienced what Pauktuutit (Inuit Women of Canada) calls “an unparalleled rate of cultural change…from isolated, family-based economic groups that relied on subsistence hunting and fishing and seasonal relocation, to populations that now live in permanent settlements and rely, in part, on a wage economy.” This shift has had a heavy cost.

The Costs

Inuit have a life expectancy that is 13 years lower than the rest of Canada.1 The infant mortality rate for Inuit, a measure UNICEF describes as “a fundamental indicator of the health and human development of a country” is three times the national average.2 So what is causing these huge discrepancies? Poverty is a significant factor.

Poverty and the need for adequate, affordable housing go hand-in-hand. Homelessness in the North is often hidden, as the harsh climate and Inuit culture mean that lack of housing manifests itself in overcrowding and the continued occupation of homes in need of major repairs. As of 2006, 31% of Inuit lived in what Statistics Canada refers to as “crowded homes” and 28% of Inuit reported living in homes needing major repairs.3 The problem is exacerbated by a lack of local materials for housing and high transportation costs, which makes the construction of new housing far more expensive than in other areas of Canada.

The lack of adequate housing in the North has a significant impact on Inuit health. Overcrowding, for example, leads to higher rates of communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis. As of 2010, the tuberculosis rate amongst Canadian Inuit was 185 times the national rate; a figure which the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), says is directly affected by housing, food security and access to health care.4 Many northern homes lack proper ventilation, causing a higher incidence of lung infections among children.

These health issues are further compounded by lack of access to health services: in 2001, 46% of Inuit children accessed a doctor compared to 85% of non-Aboriginal children.5 The first point of access in most Inuit communities is a nurse, as few doctors set up permanent practices in northern communities.

Food security is also a major concern for the Inuit. In 2005, approximately 30% of Inuit children aged 6-14 had experienced hunger at some point in their lives because their families had run out of food or money to buy food.6 An important part of Inuit culture is country food or food harvested from the land, sea or rivers. In 2005, 68% of adults in Inuit Nunaat harvested country foods, and in 2001, 96% of Inuit households shared country foods.7 However, environmental changes are making this more difficult and store-bought foods are an expensive alternative. As of 2007, a healthy diet for a family of four in an isolated northern community was estimated to cost $18,200-$23,400 a year. When compared to the median Inuit yearly income of $16,669, the high cost of living and food in particular becomes especially significant.8

Root Causes

When talking about the root causes of many of these issues, Mary Simon, current head of the ITK, has stated that “We are still working through some of the negative effects of…colonization. Effects ranging from coerced relocations to and between communities, to residential schools abuse, to inter-generational crises brought about by disrespect for traditional Inuit culture and values.”9

While some improvements have been made, it is clear that other levels of government and society must play their part. When one considers the realities described above, it is obvious that something needs to change. However, it is equally clear that any attempted remedies must be developed and implemented in consultation with Inuit people and their representatives or else risk exacerbating the situation.

Public justice – “the political dimension of loving one’s neighbor, caring for creation, and achieving the common good” – means we cannot accept that groups in Canadian society are excluded from economic and social well-being. We must come to terms with this reality so that concrete, informed action to combat poverty can take place, leading to real change.

For more on how climate change and poverty are related and suggested actions to address these twin challenges in Canada’s North, stay tuned for the final parts of this series.


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