Driving around Iqaluit, Lori Idlout wonders aloud whether the rest of Canada really is in a cost-of-living crisis.

The stories that are all too common in Nunavut of people being unable to access proper housing are getting drowned out, and that's heartbreaking, she says.

Inuit have been living in a housing crisis since first being forced into settlements. It's a truth that weighs on Idlout, the territory's sole member of Parliament.

"When I go to the malls in Ottawa and Edmonton and Winnipeg, there's lots of people walking around in malls shopping," she said in a recent interview from behind the wheel of her truck as The Canadian Press rode along with her.

"If they were having the same struggles as we were, where we can't even afford to buy a loaf of bread or milk — our stories become lost. Because other Canadians are saying it's unaffordable for them, yet they can go to the mall and buy expensive phones or whatever."

"Sorry," Idlout said, catching herself. "I feel so cynical, but that's what I get frustrated about."

Nearly 37,000 people call Nunavut home, and almost 7,500 live in its capital. Many others rely on the hub for services.

Since being elected in 2021, Idlout has made a point of trying to visit each of the territory's 25 communities, which stretch across the massive Arctic land mass and can only be reached by plane or ship.

It's a challenge. Before the House of Commons returned from a holiday break last month, Idlout said she got stranded in Rankin Inlet for six days due to weather and she had to cancel plans to visit another community.

#Inuit hardships are lost amid Canada's #affordability crisis. But this MP is listening. #CDNPoli #Housing #Nunavut #CostOfLiving

Many of the people she represents aren't used to being consulted directly by their MP, she said.

The biggest issues people raise are housing, overcrowded living and the poor condition of their homes.

Idlout recalled the mayor of Whale Cove showing her how melting permafrost had caused his home to split in half. He relied on duct tape to stop the air from coming in.

Permafrost is the reason housing in Iqaluit is built on stilts, and an aspect of the climate that makes construction more complicated

In another community, Idlout said she heard the story of families being so squeezed they had too few beds and took shifts to sleep.

Living like that hurts a person's mental health, she said, let alone their ability to physically rest or even study for school.

It's but one example of the effect the widespread absence of livable housing is having across the territory.

"I always thought that it was an issue, but hearing directly from people, just so many examples of how much it impacts everyone's daily lives was quite a shock," said Idlout.

The last federal census found that more than half of Inuit living in their traditional territories lived in overcrowded housing, and nearly one-third were in homes that needed major repairs.

Housing has also become a public-health concern, with moisture causing harmful mould to develop and overcrowding leading to the rapid spread of viruses.

The rate of tuberculosis in traditional Inuit territories was more than 300 times higher than that of non-Indigenous Canadians between 2015 and 2018.

As Idlout drove on Iqaluit's darkened roads, she pointed to a women's shelter.

"There are some women that have been there for years, I'm told," she said.

"There's no housing available. Like, when they've run away from domestic violence, there's nowhere else for them to go to … with the overcrowded housing situation, it's hard to go to another family's house when there's going to be no place to sleep."

As a result, women from smaller communities are mainly sent to Iqaluit, Idlout said.

Of the three territories, Nunavut has the highest rate of domestic violence. A recent report from Pauktuutit Inuit Women Canada found Inuit women there are at 12 times greater risk of being sexually assaulted compared to those in the rest of the country.

They were also found to be the victims of violent crime "at a rate more than 13 times higher" than the rate for all women in Canada, according to the report.

In 2021, the territory's advocate for children and youth said child sex abuse was so common it amounted to a crisis.

"When we're talking about intergenerational trauma in Nunavut," Idlout said, "they're not just words."

Getting more resources to deal with the prevalence of mental-health concerns, family violence and substance-abuse issues in the territory is her priority as MP, she said.

She struggled herself when she first came to Parliament.

"I cried so often because I didn't realize just how deep and how intense the experiences are."

That's how she grew to appreciate party politics — something that doesn't exist in Nunavut, which operates on a consensus government. It allowed her to share the load with colleagues in Ottawa.

Idlout also learned to lean on her family and elders, and develop coping mechanisms to unwind, such as sewing and reading.

"It can feel overwhelming."

The MP, who worked as a lawyer before entering federal politics, said her 23-year-old daughter recently became a homeowner, which was possible mainly because she lives in Iqaluit.

As she pointed out a row of individual houses, Idlout explained that given the lack of employment and banks outside of the capital, it's difficult for people to build up a credit rating to qualify for a mortgage. There's a heavy reliance on public housing.

Some put their names on a list to apply for a house as soon as they turn 18.

"There's one man who did that and he's now in his forties," she said. "He's still living with his parents."

Like everything else in the North, construction supplies need to be brought in by cargo or plane. That drives up costs.

Although there are more options in Iqaluit, a major challenge is that housing is often tied to employment.

"Government employees started saying, 'I don't want to retire because if I retire I will lose my government housing. Then I'll have to join the long waiting list to get into public housing,'" Idlout said.

"People are scared to retire because they'll lose their staff housing. There's so many stories about how the lack of housing impacts everyone's decisions and what they're able to do, or what they won't do or can't do."

Midway through driving, Idlout pulled over at a park near a bay.

Standing in the darkness, breathing in the freshness of the air, she recalled a song that tells the story of seeing two stars nearing the horizon at a particular point in the sky, which signals the return of the sun — and of life.

Tilting her head upward, reflecting on her ancestors even as she processed the hardships of the people she serves, Idlout said it's that kind of knowledge that fills her with pride to be Inuk.

"It's pretty amazing."

with files from Alessia Passafiume

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2024.

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