Anderson, Erik and Sarah Bonesteel (2010) A brief history of federal Inuit policy development: lessons in consultation and cultural competenceAboriginal Policy Research 7: 147-173

Keywords: architecture and designCanadian federal governmentcrowdinghistory of housing policy

This paper discusses the history of Inuit policy development, with attention drawn to the lack of consultation and cultural consideration from the Canadian government in implementing policy. Inuit housing became a concern for the federal government during and after World War II, with the Canadian and American military establishing military defence sites in the Arctic (p. 153). Concern with Canadian Arctic sovereignty, as well as American criticism of the poor conditions Inuit were living in, sparked the large-scale rental programs of the 1950’s and 1960’s (p. 153; p. 154).

Initial government housing prototype designs in the 1950’s were “igloo-shaped dwelling with a plywood floor and six-inch-thick Styrofoam walls, and the “rigid digit,” which was made from plywood sheeting with a polyethylene vapour barrier and rockwool batting insulation” (p 161). These designs paid mind to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of Inuit as they were small and light enough to be portable, as well as being a similar size and layout to a traditional family tent (p. 161). However, the trend towards a more sedentary lifestyle, coupled with the unsatisfactory cost effectiveness of these style dwellings, meant the government terminated the testing of portable housing (p. 161).

The Eskimo Housing Loan Program, established in 1959, saw the construction of 1,200 permanent, low-cost ‘matchbox’ dwellings (p. 161). Issues encountered with the pre-fabricated homes, which had been tested in Ottawa not the Arctic, were spatial configurations that did not meet Inuit cultural and social norms. For instance, early government-supplied dwellings did not provide  “space to prepare country food, repair hunting and transportation equipment, or entertain” (p. 162). Lack of consideration for Inuit culture needs can be seen by failure to design a home with ventilation for boiling water, the standard method of cooking (p. 162). Further, the houses were an inadequate size, had excessive utility costs, deficient infrastructure for water delivery and sewage disposal, and were not designed for an Arctic climate (p. 161).

The paper presents data from Peter Dawson’s 2003 fieldwork, highlighting the concerns of Inuit peoples and proposing how spatial design can facilitate family relations and traditional activities (p. 162). For example, Inuit interviewees expressed dissatisfaction with “small room size, lack of storage space, dislike of multi-storey houses, and failure of houses to stand up to extreme climatic conditions” (p. 162).

The authors assert that even with the many attempts to correct inadequate Inuit housing, there continue to be many issues with size, quality, spatial layout and heating cost for northern communities (p. 163). Despite Inuit involvement in local government and politics, the high cost of construction remains a key factor in addressing the crowding in many towns.