Lauster, Nathanael & Frank Tester (2010) Culture as a problem in linking material inequality to health: on residential crowding in the Arctic, Health & Place 16(3): 523-530.

Keywords: children and youth, crowding, gender, health, Nunavut, resettlement

Nathanael Lauster and Frank Tester consider the ways in which notions of residential crowding and overcrowding are subjective, yet policy makers and government officials have treated the measures to empirically understand crowding objective. The authors argue that when applied to the Inuit these measures have resulted in poorer health outcomes, as they are not culturally appropriate within the Inuit context. They argue that culture mediates subjective feelings about being overcrowded and thus influences a variety of health outcomes, such as stress, and such measures leave little room for cultural interpretation.

The authors draw upon data from a variety of sources, including qualitative interviews with policy makers and service providers, archival materials and 30 years of fieldwork, to see how policy has been applied in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.

They discuss two of the common measures. Based on the measure person per room (PPR), a room is considered crowded if there is more than one person per room. The authors’ criticism is this results in homogenizing people as responding to crowding the same. In addition, since the 1980s the Canadian National Occupancy Standards (CNOS) has been used as a measurement for overcrowding in Canada. The authors argue these measures effectively “culturally discipline” the Inuit based on standards of white, middle class Canadians.

Until the 1950s, the Inuit lived in extended family-based hunting camps, and the type of housing differed seasonally. The authors describe features of these different homes. From the mid-1950s, Inuit were relocated, often near the vicinity of nursing stations. The Inuit built their own accommodations using scrap materials, and some plywood homes provided. Poor housing conditions made the Inuit, especially children, more susceptible to diseases, such as pneumonia. Eventually, the government created a rental program in an attempt by the government to reduce overcrowding and tuberculosis. Inuit were taught that houses should be organized based on age and gender distinctions.

This household organization did not make sense for the Inuit, who were used to sharing sleeping quarters. However, as time went on, the subjective experience of crowding was felt by younger Inuit who began to need their own space. The authors suggest that the failure to find suitable housing solutions has had negative ramifications for both Inuit families and their communities. The authors conclude although there has been an improvement in material equality among the Inuit, such as housing, at the same time consequences have resulted in the marginalization of Inuit cultural values and practices.