Quebec coroner links infant deaths in Nunavik to overcrowded housing

Puvirnituq, Nunavik. The housing crisis in the region also contributes to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining health care workers. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

A coroner’s report looking into the death of a three-month-old infant in Quebec’s northern Nunavik region in 2021 says overcrowding in the home was a factor, and is calling on the Quebec and federal governments to rapidly increase the supply of social housing there.

Quebec coroner Geneviève Thériault’s report focused on one death, but also drew similar conclusions to nine other infants who died in Nunavik in the same year. All ten died of undetermined causes — or sudden infant death syndrome.

In the case of the three-month-old, other risk factors were also mentioned, such as exposure to second-hand smoke, but overcrowding is mentioned as a recurrent risk factor in all ten deaths.

The report was written in French and signed by the coroner on Oct. 6.

In addition to recommending increasing the supply of social housing, the report recommends the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services provide adaptable beds for children in Nunavik during a child’s first year of life, continue to teach safe sleep practices and ensure that lessons are given as much as possible in Inuktitut.

It also recommends Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services invest the resources needed to rapidly increase the number of midwives, nurses, family physicians, pediatricians, social workers and specialists in addictions and other first-line resources in Nunavik, along with housing support for them.

Staffing at crisis levels

Faisca Richer, a medical assistant to the public health director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, said staffing levels are at a crisis situation in some Nunavik communities.

Health-care staffing challenges are well documented across Canada. Richer said they are even more acute in Nunavik.

She said solutions need to be based on the reality of the situation.

“Yes, we need more midwives and pediatricians, but I would say in this particular case we also mostly need our community workers that are local women and will support the parents in doing everything they can,” Richer said.

That includes giving advice in Inuktitut by someone who understands the reality of the parents’ living situation, ideally inside their homes.

Richer said another challenge is making sure parents have enough space to put a bassinet for a baby to sleep in. Richer said this is not always easy, as families often sleep in the same room with mattresses laid out beside one another because of a lack of space.

“This is why we say that unless there is major investment in more housing, there might be a limit to how much we can do from a healthcare point of view,” Richer said.

Housing shortfall

She said support for housing in Quebec has been lacking in the last two decades.

“The situation is really getting worse housing-wise, and we’re now seeing the repercussions of that in our health statistics,” Richer said.

Nearly half of all houses were overcrowded in Nunavik in 2021, according to data from Statistic Canada.

The Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau houses 98 per cent of Nunavik’s roughly 13,000 people. In September, it told Radio-Canada that more than 800 housing units were needed to meet demand in the region.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said an interview would not be possible on the coroner’s report. Instead, it issued an emailed statement through spokesperson Randy Legault-Rankin.

It said housing for Inuit communities in Nunavik is a shared jurisdiction with the province of Quebec, and outlined several pockets of money the federal government has announced dating back to 2016 when $50 million was set aside for supported housing in Nunavik.

A 2017 announcement promised $250 million for Nunavik communities over the next 10 years until 2027-28, and a recent announcement of $210 million was earmarked for the Makivik Corporation to support housing needs in the region.

“The government of Canada’s investments in housing and other community infrastructure will build healthier, safer and more prosperous Indigenous communities over the long term and accelerate its commitment to closing the infrastructure gap,” the statement read.

“The government of Canada is also working with communities and modern treaty and self-governing groups to address immediate needs that they have identified as priorities.”

-with files from John Van Dusen

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Election Spotlight—Health Care in Nunavik, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland to reduce services amidst staffing shortages in health care system, Eye on the Arctic

CBC News

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One thought on “Quebec coroner links infant deaths in Nunavik to overcrowded housing

  • Friday, November 4, 2022 at 10:50

    I have worked in the Northern région of Quebec for many years as a nurse, specifically for the Crees, but it is the same problematic.

    You have to understand that even if there were more housing, a lot of people would be in the same situation. Those houses are not free of charge and many have only welfare to live on and everything is much more expensive than in the south.

    That is why often, the people end up living together. And those unmarried are not allowed to have housing. In my knowledge, there is no one bedroom apartment in the North., which would be less expensive for a single person and liberate rooms in the house.

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