Quebec coroner links infant deaths in Nunavik to overcrowded shelters


A report from a coroner investigating the 2021 death of a three-month-old infant in Quebec's northern Nunavik region says home overcrowding was a factor and is calling on Quebec and the federal government to take up the offer To quickly increase social housing there.

The report by Quebec coroner Geneviève Thériault focused on one death but also drew similar conclusions for nine other infants who died in Nunavik the same year. All ten died of unknown causes – or from sudden infant death syndrome.

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

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

In addition to recommending increasing the supply of public housing, the report recommends that the Nunavik Regional Office of Health and Social Services provide adjustable beds to children in Nunavik in their first year of life, continue to teach safe sleep practices, and ensure instruction is delivered in this way as much as possible in Inuktitut.

It is also recommended that the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services invest the necessary resources to rapidly increase the number of midwives, nurses, family physicians, pediatricians, social workers, addiction specialists, and other first-line resources in Nunavik and to provide them with support to provide accommodation.

Crisis level staffing

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

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

She said solutions must be based on the reality of the situation.

“Yes, we need more midwives and paediatricians, but I would say in this particular case we also need our community workers, who are local women who support parents to do everything they can.” said Richer.

This includes counseling in Inuktitut from someone who understands the reality of the parents' living situation, ideally in their homes.

Richer said another challenge is ensuring parents have enough space to set up a crib for the baby to sleep. Richer said this isn't always easy because families often sleep in the same room with mattresses next to each other because of a lack of mattress space.

“That's why we're saying there may be a limit to what we can do from a health perspective short of major investments in more housing,” Richer said.

Housing shortage

She said there has been a lack of support for housing in Quebec over the past two decades.

“The housing situation is really getting worse, and we are now seeing the impact of that in our health statistics,” Richer said.

According to Statistic Canada, nearly half of all homes in Nunavik were overcrowded in 2021.

The Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau houses 98 percent of Nunavik's approximately 13,000 residents. In September, it told Radio-Canada that more than 800 housing units would be needed to meet demand in the region.

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