Memorial’s Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy is racking up some major frequent flier points this summer.
Since classes ended in April, Dr. Julia Christensen has visited active research projects in the Northwest Territories and Greenland.
A cultural geographer who studies how places have meaning — and how some places acquire meaning relative to other places — Dr. Christensen’s current research focus is Arctic homelessness and urbanization.
As rural northern communities grow and develop, housing has become a fundamental social justice issue. In harsh environments, proper housing can mean the difference between life and death.
Historically, northern housing stock has mimicked the materials and architecture found in the south, which results in inappropriate housing for the North. Increasingly, residents of northern communities are doubling up and multiple people are sharing small homes. Northern housing is also unlikely to appreciate in value, unlike homes in the south.
“Part of the problem is that in the process of state-sanctioned northern settlement programs, many small communities were not built around sustainable wage economics, while regional centres were built around economic and administrative activities,” said Dr. Christensen.
“Another part of the problem is that addressing homelessness and housing insecurity requires a lot of money, and it requires a robust non-profit sector.”
Dr. Christensen says that larger communities like Yellowknife, N.W.T., or Nuuk, Greenland, have relatively creative and engaged non-profit sectors, but smaller communities do not.
But, she also says that larger centres see a significant amount of burnout from service providers trying to meet the needs of homeless community members on operating budgets that are not only tight, but are determined year-to-year based on territorial and federal funding programs.
Visual research tool
In Yellowknife, Dr. Christensen is working on a collaborative Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project for Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic (ReSA).
Along with her collaborators, Dr. Lisa Freeman of Kwantlen Polytechnic University and social justice coalition Alternatives North, she is developing a visual research tool that can be used by housing advocates and service providers to bring awareness to housing insecurity and offer tangible recommendations.
In Greenland she is teaming up with Dr. Steven Arnfjord of the University of Greenland to look at the social dynamics of housing insecurity, homelessness and urbanization in that country.
“He and I conducted a series of in-depth ethnographic interviews this summer and also held a series of participatory photography workshops with people who use key support services for the housing insecure in Nuuk,” said Dr. Christensen.
“The workshops provided very insightful, rich visual accounts of places of significance in the community to research participants, and we were able to use the photographs to inspire deeper discussions about changes in the community, what it means to experience housing insecurity and what kinds of supports are needed for people living without shelter in such a rapidly growing Arctic city.”
More housing needed
Dr. Christensen says that government-subsidized housing fills a significant need for all households in the Canadian North, but that funding from the federal government has been steadily decreasing since the early 1990s.
“This means the territorial governments have had less to work with. The status quo is one of replacing existing housing units, and not adding to the stock. Adding to the stock, however, is what is ultimately needed in order to address high rates of housing need.”
Dr. Christensen believes that the community-led housing initiatives she and her partners are working on — which are managed by the community and not the territory — can improve the situation significantly.
“Ideally, housing designs and policy models that are reflective of local cultural needs and use a co-ownership or community ownership model can be developed in the near future.”