12 people under 1 roof: How an N.W.T. family is experiencing the territory's housing crisis

Jacqueline Williah stands in her kitchen with her 10-month-old grandson Fredrick in her three-bedroom home in Whatì, N.W.T. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC - image credit)
Jacqueline Williah stands in her kitchen with her 10-month-old grandson Fredrick in her three-bedroom home in Whatì, N.W.T. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC - image credit)

When Jacqueline Williah moved into her two-bedroom house in Whatì, N.W.T., in the '90s, she never imagined 12 people would be living in it one day.

Two to three mattresses in each bedroom, one mattress in the living room and no bedrooms for the children — Williah grew emotional when she talked about her living situation.

"I'm overcrowded. [There is] no space to sit around, mostly we stay inside the room," Williah said through tears.

Williah moved into the house along the shore of Lac La Martre in 1994 with her husband at the time, and the couple started their family in the humble home.

As the family grew, the house was renovated to add a second level and an additional bedroom, and with a shortage of housing in the community, all six children — now aged 30, 27, 25, 21, 19 and 17 — remained at home.

The family continued to grow, and now three grandchildren are being raised in the house. Williah's brother also moved in.

"They are all with me, my grandkids too," Williah said.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

There are six adults and two grandchildren using two rooms upstairs, and everyone else sleeps downstairs — but Williah says the stressful living situation means her own sleep is restless.

She says the school-age children also have trouble doing their homework in the crowded house.

"They don't know what to do, where to do their homework … so they don't hardly do homework," she said.

Bills can also add up with 12 people under one roof. Electricity bills can be up to $700 during the cold months.

Wiliah said she is tired all the time.

"It's ever hard for me," she said.

934 on housing waitlist

Lack of housing has long been an issue in the N.W.T.

Last March, an Alberta MP called it a "colossal humanitarian failure" during a meeting with the federal government's standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Territorial MLAs are also regularly raising concerns in the legislative assembly.

 

There are 934 applications for housing in the territory, according to Housing NWT.

Whatì has a population of approximately 543 residents with 143 private dwellings, according to the 2021 census. Of the private households surveyed, 45 houses had five or more people living in the same unit.

Mark Rendell/CBC
Mark Rendell/CBC

There are 13 people on the waiting list for housing in Whatì and more than 160 in the Tłı̨chǫ region, excluding Yellowknife.

But waitlists are not always a true reflection of the housing needs in each community, a Housing NWT spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News, as individuals might by applying to other programs.

'I don't know what we're going to do'

Williah said her son and daughter have asked for their own respective homes to live in but there are no houses available in the community.

"They're just trying but they don't [have] a house yet," she said.

Richard Wetrade has been Williah's partner for the last decade. He echoed Williah's concerns.

"I don't know what we're going to do, you know, there's hardly any housing available in around this little community," Wetrade said.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

GNWT working with Indigenous governments

Territorial Housing Minister Paulie Chinna acknowledged the overcrowding issues in communities.

"It's really unfortunate," Chinna told the CBC.

"Our housing needs are very unique, I feel, to the rest of Canada. We have several different dynamics, leading from climate change to material delivery to how we are going to be building capacity in smaller communities."

The territorial government alone cannot solve the housing crisis, Chinna said, noting the GNWT is prioritizing working with Indigenous governments.

In August, the Tłı̨chǫ Government announced $42 million in federal funding that would bring 26 new modular homes to  Tłı̨chǫ communities — totalling 60 new housing units.

It is not clear how many units are reserved for Whatì, but the SAO said the community will be adding a subdivision with a few additional lots in the coming years.

For now, Williah said she hopes someone helps her family.

"I'm just so stressed. I just don't know who to go to."