Debicka, Elizabeth and Friedman, Avi (2009) From policies to building: public housing in Canada’s Eastern Arctic 1950s to 1980s, Canadian Journal of Urban Research 18(2): 25-39

Keywords: architecture and designCanadian federal governmentEskimo Housing Loan Programhealthhistory of housing policyNorthwest Territories Housing Corporationtraditional dwellings

Elizabeth Debicka and Avi Friedman review Canadian federal government housing policies for the Inuit in the eastern Arctic from the 1950s to 1980s. They critique the fact that the homes built were culturally inappropriate for the Inuit and the and structurally poorly designed for environmental conditions. The authors start the article by detailing some the archeological dwellings of ancestral Thule Inuit, who made structures of whale bones.

After World War II, due to humanitarian and political concerns, the government wanted to improve the living conditions of the Inuit, which contributed to prevalence of respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. In some places, Inuit were living in houses that government officials perceived as “shacks” with little ventilation, no sanitation facilities, and crowded conditions.

In the 1950s, the government experimented with different prototypes with the goal of creating inexpensive housing that was suitable for the Arctic climate. Examples of these include the Styrofoam igloo, the double-walled tent, and the “shanty-type” frame house. However, these designs were abandoned due to structural issues, the rapid deterioration of materials, poor ventilation, and high construction costs. Then the government settled with a clapboard square prototype because it was affordable and easy to construct. All building materials had to be shipped from southern Canada in prefabricated sections, and the construction period lasted between two to three months. The housing prototype was dubbed the “matchbox” due to its size and was delivered under the Eskimo Housing Loan Program.

Eventually, the Matchbox unit was replaced by the “Rigid Frame,” 16 feet by 16 feet unit that had slightly improved construction quality, and costed $420 each to build. In 1960, the government built 125 Rigid Frame housing units in fourteen different Arctic communities. These resembled Euro-Canadian homes and were built restricted to certain locations. Unlike the traditional snow house, these houses allowed little light through the small windows and had lacked ventilation, which lead to the proliferation of respiratory diseases. These homes were more heat efficient, yet many Inuit families could not afford fuel throughout the winter and/or the yearly payments required to purchase the units. Thus, the majority of the 1,200-unit distributed through the Eskimo Housing Loan Program remained rentals.

In October 1965, the federal government approved 12.5 million dollars to the Eskimo Rental Housing Program for the construction of three-bedroom houses over a five-year period. The authors argue these homes were also inappropriate for Inuit. Then in 1972, the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation was established and it was responsible for housing policies in the Eastern Arctic. There was an emphasis on the construction of single-bedroom units for Inuit who had wage employment. Economic hubs, such as Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit) and Baker Lake, saw the highest level housing construction.

The authors are further critical of the failure to take account of how Inuit prepare foods and of communal sleeping arrangements. Most of the government-supplied housing did not support Inuit land-based activities, which the authors argue have an adverse impact on Inuit well being. As a result, substandard public housing continues to comprise most of the housing available in Arctic communities.