Thursday, February 7, 2008

Grassroots Journalism

When I worked in Western PEI, I used to have a column in our paper. While most previous reporters used the space called "Our Space" to comment on the hillarious nature of everyday life, I used it to throw firebombs at the government.

When my network asked for people to write a column for Grassroots News -- a weekly aboriginal journal out of Manitoba -- I jumped at the chance. Writing is like a muscle, and mine was getting flabby.

So, here it is. My column in Grassroots News. It was a pleasure to write, and the editor at Grassroots was a pleasure to deal with.

GRN: "Can you do one on global warming?"

KOTN: "It is really cold here today, maybe next time. I got this thing about housing I really want to use. I mention Mike Holmes..."

GRN: "Great, housing is a mess everywhere. Do it."

and I did:

Nunavut: housing nightmare
By Kent Driscoll
Grassroots News

If television handyman Mike Holmes could see what lies under the siding of Iqaluit’s infamous White Row housing project, he would have an aneurism. Like any aboriginal community in Canada, housing is at the top of the wants and needs list for local governments. In Nunavut, the problem is compounded. Living on the street is not a viable option when you live in the Arctic.

Over the summer, the White Row housing project in the middle of Iqaluit received a facelift. The long rows of townhouses—some of the oldest buildings still standing in Iqaluit—received a nice pastel covering. Locals still call it White Row, one of those unique Nunavut identifiers that make outsiders scratch their heads, like how no one uses the street names, our rigidly enforced lunch hour, or how people share cabs.

If Holmes—the handyman with the heart of gold—could see what is just below the surface, the response would be sudden and dramatic. I can just picture him looking at the rotting boards that form White Row, and making his usual suggestions about the morality of the contractors.

When the changes happened this summer, I asked some of the contractors working on White Row about the buildings. It was obvious even to an untrained eye; the boards underneath the siding were rotten.

They weren’t willing to go on the record with a journalist, but over a coffee they did say they wouldn’t move their own families into these buildings.

They likely wouldn’t have to. If these expatriate Newfoundlanders were to actually move to Iqaluit—instead of show up in the summer to work—they would be able to afford one of the new apartments near the airport.

Most of those units are rented out by private companies, in order to attract staff. If the wind is blowing right, you can hear the mournful lament of homesick Atlantic Canadians wafting through the air from Inuksagait Plaza. “Oh, the year was 1778…”

White Row is just the tip of the spear; Nunavut’s housing problems go much deeper and impact on every segment of northern society. Arctic Bay couldn’t get a much needed teacher earlier this year, because there was no housing unit for them to live in.

A report on homelessness—released earlier this year—paints a bleak picture; describing how women will sleep with a man to find a bed for the night. Others would turn to drugs and prostitution. The only homeless shelter for women in Iqaluit is for battered women, causing one woman to remark in the report that she was considering paying someone to beat her up, just to get a bed.

Just take a walk by Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit. Those little shacks that look like they are used for snowmobile storage are someone’s home.

Supplies for Nunavut homes were accidentally left on the dock in Montreal this year, meaning that the government had to fly those supplies into communities—at great expense—to get the nominal construction they had planned finished.

Those supplies were purchased with the $200 million offered by the federal government as a replacement for the Kelowna Accord. Kelowna was worth $5.1 billion, and wasn’t even close to a start for Nunavut’s housing problem. The current funding works out to one new building per community.

The Nunavut Housing Corporation says that $2 billion is needed in Nunavut alone just to get caught up to the demand for housing, over 3000 housing units are needed. Add in the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada, and housing is going to get worse before it gets better.

Nunavut’s Housing Minister was shuffled out of his position, just days before it became public knowledge that he was in court over defaulting on his mortgage. If a cabinet minister making over $100,000 a year can’t afford a home, what chance does the average Nunavummiut have?

I have heard local bureaucrats say that the top three issues in the territory are housing, housing and housing. Wonder why tuberculosis still has a grip on Nunavut residents? Overcrowded housing. Wonder why we have such an elevated rate of domestic assault? Overcrowded housing. Sexual abuse of children? Overcrowded housing provides the opportunity. Elder abuse? Overcrowded housing. Wonder why little Joanasie can’t pay attention in class? He lives with 10 other people in a small home and can’t sleep at night.

Kelowna wouldn’t have been the complete answer, but it would have been a start. If Mike Holmes ever makes his way to Nunavut, he will have to travel to Ottawa to confront the architects of this housing disaster.

Kent Driscoll is a reporter for APTN National News, and is based in Iqaluit, Nunavut.