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Climate Change Burns Through Canadian Housing and Homelessness Crisis

Indigenous peoples disproportionately affected by fires

As summer draws to a close, we face the undeniable impacts of climate change, extending beyond disasters and encompassing social issues.

This summer, Canada has suffered its most record-breaking fires, fueled by months of hot and dry meteorological conditions. More than 15 million hectares have been scorched – representing a surface greater than Greece (13.19 million hectors) – breaking the previous record set in 1989 of 7.6 million hectares. Since January 2023, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre declares that there have been 6,118 wildfires, with six still ongoing in British Columbia, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories. This forced over 200,000 Canadians to be evacuated and caused 17 fatalities. The Donnie Creek wildfire began on May 12 and became the largest fire ever recorded in BC, surpassing the size of Prince Edward Island. The wildfires have had a serious impact on air quality in Canada and the neighboring United States, with Air Quality Index (AQI) values often exceeding safe levels in the Midwest and Northeast United States, and in some cases approaching record levels. 

These natural disasters have been multiplying in number and intensity in the last decades, not only in Canada, but in the rest of the world. While statistics for  2023  have yet to be published, in 2022, the Emergency Event Database, EM-DAT, recorded 387 natural hazards and disasters worldwide resulting in the loss of 30,704 lives. On September 6, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reported that the period from June to August was the hottest on record, with an average global temperature of 16.77°C. This is well above the previous record set in 2019, set at 16.48°C . C3S’s Climate Change Service Director Carlo Buontempo declared that “ we are observing, not only new extremes but the persistence of these record-breaking conditions, and the impacts these have on both people and planet, are a clear consequence of the warming of the climate system.” Scientists explain that human-induced climate change is due to the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as a natural phenomenon known as El Niño, which is a temporary warming of certain parts of the Pacific Ocean that alters weather conditions worldwide. 

Furthermore, on August 22, the World Weather Attribution published an in-depth scientific analysis proving that climate change more than doubled the risk of extreme weather conditions for fires in Canada. By focusing on “fire-weather indices” they were able to identify the role of human-induced climate change. In their findings, they noted that seasons with similar severity as the one we saw this summer are now at least seven times more likely to occur. Additionally, they found that the intensity of these seasons has risen by approximately 20 per cent due to human-induced climate change. A crucial point highlighted in the report is that the wildfires disproportionately affected Indigenous communities. These groups faced heightened vulnerability because of limited access to services and challenges in responding effectively to the fires. Indeed, climate change has significant impacts on ongoing social issues. The World Bank has linked climate change to global inequality patterns. In other words, climate change sheds light on deeply entrenched social vulnerabilities and imbalances. While they are those to least contribute to climate change, the most impacted social groups are female-headed households, children, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities, landless tenants, migrant workers, displaced persons, sexual and gender minorities, older people, and other socially and economically marginalized groups. These disproportionate effects can be felt in terms of health consequences, food, water, and livelihood security, migration and forced displacement, loss of cultural identity, and other related risks. This is a reminder that climate change is not simply an environmental crisis, but also a social crisis and it should be reflected in the solutions offered. 

The recent forest fires in Canada serve as a clear illustration of this situation, as they have exacerbated existing problems like the housing and homelessness crisis and the vulnerability of Indigenous communities. To understand this phenomenon, it is first crucial to grasp the situation in Canada. In recent years, affordable housing has become increasingly  rare. Indeed, Canada has some of the highest housing prices compared to income in the G7 countries. According to the 2023 Mercer Cost of Living Survey, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are the three most expensive cities in the country. Unaffordable housing can be explained by multiple factors including growing inflation rates – for the past ten years, inflation was between one and three per cent but in 2022, it reached 6.3 per cent – low supply clashed with a high demand of mainly foreign investors and short-term rentals which contributed to increasing prices and housing shortages. In the last year, interest rates have also doubled. Finally, building materials have recently also been facing price increases. Overall, in Canada, housing has evolved into a genuine crisis, forcing a growing number of individuals into a state of economic vulnerability.

Moreover, unaffordable housing is one of the leading causes of homelessness. The Homeless Hub has estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 individuals experience homelessness each year in Canada. This is disproportionately affecting Indigenous populations. In one of their studies, the Homeless Hub estimated that in urban centers, one in fifteen Indigenous people experience homelessness, compared to one out of 128 for the general population. This is the result of centuries of economic exclusion and discriminatory policies. The study finds that different historical traumas including Canada’s colonization and exploitation of indigenous lands and populations, and policies such as the Doctrine of Discovery and the Indian Act forcibly putting Indigenous children into residential schools led to diverse issues such as familial dysfunction, addictions, and social marginalization contributing to homelessness. Other factors include transitions from reserves to urban living in search of employment and increased opportunity, racism, landlord discrimination, high incarceration rates, compromised education opportunities and support, and unemployment.

How does climate change contribute to these problems? Numerous articles have highlighted how climate change exacerbates pressures on housing, homelessness, and the vulnerability of Indigenous populations. With increasingly frequent and severe wildfires, we see a rise in destroyed homes, leading to greater displacement, delays in obtaining construction materials, increased housing insurance costs, and ultimately unaffordable housing, weighing most heavily on the most underserved communities. The UNHCR recently published a report addressing the climate crisis and the right to housing, stating that “the climate crisis is severely threatening the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing around the world. Marginalized groups and their homes are at particular risk and exposed to the impact of climate change and therefore need to be involved in climate responses at all levels.” 

Furthermore, not only are Indigenous populations more exposed to homelessness, but they are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Professor Amy Janzwood, from the Department of Political Science and Bieler School of the Environment at McGill, has been researching environmental politics and governance. In an email to the Daily, she recommended one of her recently published articles, co-authored with Professors Minh Do and Kristen Pue: “Multilevel governance, climate (in)justice, and settler colonialism—evidence from First Nations disaster evacuations in so-called Canada”. The article, published in the Critical Policy, Studies Journal explains how Indigenous populations in Canada are disproportionately affected by climate change because “disaster management reproduces settler-colonial dynamics of displacement in so-called Canada.” In other words, through an analysis of policies and priority setting during the recent wildfires, their research asserts that because of the refusal of the federal and provincial governments to take into account the position of Indigenous governments and their unique vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, a colonial framework of governance is perpetuated at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Despite the federal government’s recent acknowledgment that First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit peoples experience disproportionate impacts from climate change, the article underscores that “Indigenous peoples’ strategies to address climate change issues continue to be systematically excluded from the development and implementation of climate policies.”  Indeed, by analyzing data from Indigenous Services Canada, they found that “First Nations are disproportionately affected by largely climate-related disasters, evacuating at a higher frequency – 328 times higher, on average.” The article later expands on how emergency management is supposed to be a shared responsibility between the different levels of government concerned with the event. In addition, as stipulated by the Indian Act (1876), the current paradigm of reconciliation between the state and Indigenous populations recognizes the jurisdictional authority and self-autonomy of Indigenous governments. However recent events seem to be showing that effective coordination between the different levels of government and Indigenous governments is missing. Furthermore, they highlight that the Indigenous government’s continued reliance on federal funding illustrates the perseverance of a hierarchical relationship between these levels of governance. However, the article concludes that better collaboration with Indigenous communities on evacuation procedures “has the potential to reduce the risk of these interventions compounding experiences of marginalization.”

Once we acknowledge that human-induced climate change acts as a catalyst for the intensification and frequency of wildfires and other natural disasters, it is important to look beyond its material and quantitative effects. Indeed, these climate disasters don’t function in a fair and equal way. Not only does it disproportionately weigh on the most marginalized, acting as a magnifying glass on issues such as Indigenous discrimination, it also reinforces economic inequality by amplifying the current housing and homelessness crisis, giving way to expressions such as “environmental racism”.  This term refers to the disproportionate exposure of marginalized communities, mainly low-income communities to environmental risks. This systemic form of discrimination perpetuates social and economic inequalities, including colonial frameworks, leaving vulnerable populations to bear the weight of climate change.

As these events worsen and widen socio-economic disparities, it becomes imperative for governments to address housing issues and discrimination to ensure everyone can withstand the climate crisis.