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ONTARIO: Lakehead researcher seeks to understand northern housing insecurity

Dr. Rebecca Schiff co-leading projects to find affordable solutions specific to Northern Canada

A Lakehead University researcher is co-leading two research teams looking to improve the availability of affordable housing in Canada and specifically, northern Canada. 

The two research projects, At Home in the North: Partners in Housing and Home, the other called Community Housing Canada, recently received more than $1.3 million each in funding from the federal government. 

Dr. Rebecca Schiff, a professor in and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead, is originally from New York city, but with a mother from Richmond Hill, said she soon found her way to Canada to study. While she did move around a little, she had a very formative experience while living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of fewer than 10,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Schiff was working for Memorial University, based at the Labrador Institute. The location and the challenges instilled in her a love of the North. 

“A love for the North and a real passion for working on the unique challenges that people experience in northern Canada, that aren't experienced in the same way in, in southern cities and southern towns,” said Schiff. “That's also led me to focus on housing and homelessness, but also on issues that are unique to the North.”

These issues include the very real issue of housing. 

“Northern Canada is not a place you can go without a shelter,” said Schiff. 

She said she was shocked by the idea of people living in a wealthy country going without housing, but that she also saw an opportunity. 

“I saw that there was something that I could contribute to my research to, maybe changing that and moving towards a place where everyone had a safe and affordable home.”

Schiff is co-leading two research teams, with several students and professors from Lakehead, including co-lead Dr. Julea Christenson from Memorial University. 

The Community Housing Canada research is focused on households with low and modest incomes across Canada that struggle to access affordable, suitable and adequate housing.

It is an ongoing problem, said Schiff, and one that stems from home ownership being priced out of reach for most and renting in the private market can consume a large proportion of income. 

There are also aspects of this research that seek to ensure that there is an effective implementation research between policy and practice, said Schiff. 

“One of our main goals is around knowledge sharing, and finding out what works in terms of programs or getting housing constructed,” said Schiff.

She said additionally, there needs to be support. 

“Sometimes, it's not just about the physical shelter. You can have a house, but that doesn't mean you have a home, “ she said. “It's about the programs, as well, that can help support people in their houses so that they feel like they have a home so they feel safe and secure.” 

Secure and supportive housing, in Schiff’s experience, gives people a foundation upon which to build a life.
“They can work on other challenges that might prevent housing stability, whether it's food insecurity, or if they face mental health challenges, so that we can find the stuff that's really working,” said Schiff.

She said it is not just about finding the right programs for each person, but communicating what works, and what doesn’t, to the areas that could use the information. In a region like northern Canada, there is a lot of ground to cover. There is a focus on construction as well and the need for buildings to withstand the northern climate. 

Schiff said she hopes the research will begin to answer questions surrounding how to get housing built in the north, how to get more and to get it built effectively, and specifically, “how do we design housing that's relevant to the North,” said Schiff.  

“There are a lot of places where housing has been built to southern standards or southern design that doesn't necessarily work,” she said, offering examples like permafrost regions and even climate change.

“We want to find those techniques and approaches that are being used in some communities and be able to share that knowledge broadly,” said Schiff. 

She said they are hoping that other communities can implement these programs, as well as passing the information to policy makers, governments and stakeholders. 

“That can aid them in developing policy and programs that are most responsive to what works in the north,” said Schiff. “And what Northerners indicate that they need, and what will work within their communities.”


Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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