Quebec coroner links infant deaths in Nunavik to overcrowded housing

The village of Kuujjuaq in Nunavik in a file photo. A report by Quebec's coroner says overcrowding was a factor in the death of 10 infants in Nunavik in 2021. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC - image credit)
The village of Kuujjuaq in Nunavik in a file photo. A report by Quebec's coroner says overcrowding was a factor in the death of 10 infants in Nunavik in 2021. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC - image credit)

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.

CBC reached out to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for comment but it did not respond before deadline.