IQALUIT — Caroline Robinson laughs for nearly a minute when asked about her belongings.
“Possessions? That’s so funny — I have nothing,” she said. “It’s so difficult. All I can do is laugh about it because I’ve lost so much.”
Robinson is a mental health outreach worker for the Government of Nunavut in Cambridge Bay. In a community of 1,600 people, she’s one of three public service employees working in mental health programs.
While she works full-time hours, her position is casual, renewed every few months. Because of this, she ineligible for staff housing, Robinson told HuffPost Canada. Instead, she couch-surfs. But when no friends or family have space for her, she sleeps on her office floor in a sleeping bag behind her desk.
As a certified social worker, Robinson estimates her income is more than $100,000 this year.
According to a 2017 senate committee report on housing in Inuit Nunangat, or the Canadian Arctic, the majority of residences in Nunavut are owned by the territorial government. Access to the homes are offered as an incentive to permanent employees. This makes rents steep on the private market: A 2018 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation report found the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Nunavut was $2,648.
Two-thirds of the Nunavut population can’t secure housing without some sort of assistance from the government or their employer, according to that CMHC report. As of 2016, 36.5 per cent of the Nunavut population was in “core housing need.” That’s more than double the rate in any other Canadian province or territory.
According to the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC), the territorial government organization that manages housing, Nunavut needed 3,545 more homes as of 2016. This is the most recent data the NHC can provide but those needs are only growing.
A 2016 Statistics Canada report found that 54 per cent of Inuit live in overcrowded conditions or “hidden homelessness,” a term that refers to people who have no homes but are not visibly living on the street.
It has gotten so dire that Robinson has decided to quit the job she loves, with the co-workers and clients who have grown attached to her, because leaving the territory will give her a better chance to find an actual place to live.
“I have no choice but to leave my home and my children’s home,” Robinson said, meaning Nunavut.
Her mother was born and raised in a Nunavut outpost camp. Robinson, who is Iunk, was born in Edmonton. She moved to the territory when she was 18 to reconnect with her culture.
Her children are now adults, and also employed casually with the Government of Nunavut. One studies at the only post-secondary institution in the territory, Nunavut Arctic College, and lives in student housing. The other two are couch-surfing for now (but one will start NAC in the fall and move to student accommodation).
“We don’t want to leave — we all work for the GN (Government of Nunavut). This is where my people live, but I have no choice because I can’t get housing. More and more Inuit are being pushed out of Nunavut to places we don’t know about.”
Robinson said her managers were reluctant to accept her resignation. She has been making progress at work. In the last eight months, she started a “kindness confetti” public project to promote self-esteem, and a family sewing and carvings group; she has given peer training support at the high school and its youth radio program. Robinson said she was also developing an Inuit-specific harm reduction group for substance abuse, a men’s group and a residential school survivors group.
Her managers tried to assist her in finding a home. Robinson said when their search brought no results, they turned their efforts to help her look for work and housing in Alberta.
“How am I supposed to work in mental health, when I can’t even help myself?”
Robinson knows friends and family who have had to make the same choice. In 2018, just 26.55 per cent of Government of Nunavut employees with staff housing were Inuit. Yet, Inuit represent 85 per cent of the territory’s population and 50 per cent of the territorial government workforce.
As of March 2018, 29 territorial government employees with staff housing in Cambridge Bay were Inuit while 65 were non-Inuit, according to government data. In the capital city of Iqaluit, the difference was much larger: 198 Inuit compared to 428 non-Inuit.
The choice to stay or go comes with some major considerations: challenges navigating urban life, the higher rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and being away from the comforts of family, tundra and Inuit culture.
This month, the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was released. Several recommendations are specific to Inuit. One of them is to honour all socio-economic commitments as defined in agreements on land claims and self-government between Inuit and the Crown. Another is to “immediately invest in safe, affordable and culturally appropriate housing within Inuit communities and for Inuit outside of their homelands, given the links between the housing crisis and violence, poor health and suicide.”
Still, Robinson feels “pushed out.”
“How am I supposed to work in mental health, when I can’t even help myself?” she rhetorically asks.
Robinson graduated from Nunavut Art College’s social work program last year and has been working for the government on contract since she returned to the territory in 2016. Within seven days of graduating, she had to leave student housing. That was when homelessness became her new normal.
“All these social work positions are casual― what’s the point of doing the program if there are no [permanent] jobs or housing?” Robinson said.
Homes held for future employees
According to the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs, there were 186 vacant territorial staff homes across Nunavut, as of May 10. (These include apartments, rowhouses, and sixplexes. Detached houses are rare.) Of these, 177 units were being held for “active hiring competitions,” full-time positions that are not yet filled. It did not disclose what the remaining 11 are for.
In Cambridge Bay, there are 13 vacant homes, about a tenth of the total staff housing units there. They’re all being held for future employees.
At the end of May, the minister of Nunavut’s new human resources department, Lorne Kusugak, told the legislative assembly that staff housing will change under his watch “using a phased approach.” NHC will no longer administer staff housing. Instead, his ministry will run a central committee with representatives from all departments rather than the previous setup where staff housing decisions were made by officials from just a few government branches.
Other than moving management of staff housing and introducing a new procedures manual, Kusugak’s statement did not elaborate on how the changes will impact those who would benefit the most – Inuit casual employees desperate for housing.
Robinson regularly couch-surfs at four different homes. She said she was lucky to have someone let her stay a whole month recently.
At the beginning of her homelessness, she pursued permanent work that would offer staff housing – but to no avail. Then she focused on trying to rent a privately owned home, but even that proved challenging.
Last month, Robinson applied for an apartment with Northview REIT, one of the biggest real estate and property management companies in Nunavut, and was approved to move in. When Robinson emailed the company two days after the approval to confirm her move-in date, Northview replied saying there had been an error and the unit was actually being held for a construction crew.
A week after the request for comment from HuffPost, Northview reversed its decision. According to Robinson, the company said she could have the apartment because the construction crew would not be arriving until next year. But it was too late. The mental health worker had already quit her job, booked a $1,300 non-refundable plane ticket to Calgary and signed a lease there.
“It’s interesting that she has given so much to the community while being homeless.”
Anna*, a friend of Robinson experienced similar homelessness when working casual contracts for the Nunavut government. (She is still an employee and asked that her real name not be published, fearing it could jeopardize her employment.) At various times, she lived in a truck, at the women’s shelter, and in a 10-foot-by-12-foot cabin with her three children.
The two women joke they should have gone back to cabin-living and Robinson could live under the stairs.
Now, Anna has permanent employee status in the same department as Robinson. She finally got staff housing, but coping with homelessness while working and waiting was frustrating. She tried to get on the social housing wait list for people with low incomes, and was told it could take five years.
The two women said they considered how much easier it would have been if they had just quit their jobs and went on social assistance. At least then, they could have moved up in priority on the public housing wait list and a shot at subsidized rent of just $60 a month.
But they’re passionate about mental health and the wellness of their community. They want to advocate to help others in need.
‘I truly do not want to leave my people’
“There are days where she is working all night,” Anna said about her friend.
“It’s interesting that she has given so much to the community while being homeless ... It’s sad to know she will need to leave. She’s serving the community, not just getting a paycheque or housing. She lives by IQ (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) principles.”
Those are the eight guiding societal values of Nunavut, which include respecting others, being inclusive, being resourceful and serving the community.
Robinson said she is trying to find the positive in her situation.
“I truly do not want to leave my people,” she said.
“I have lived in the south before and am constantly longing to be back here. The system might have failed me, but hopefully I can help someone else.”
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