Disciplining cultural minorities: 1960s housing guidelines for Inuit families

An article in the journal Health & Place raises the issue of how to define residential crowding.

The authors, Nathanael Lauster and Frank Tester, point out that the definition of “crowded” living conditions in the U.S. has been downsized from 2 people per room in 1940 to 1 person per room now. And in Canada the current common definition is based on the age, gender and relationship of the household members, such that children over age 4, for example, can only share rooms with siblings of the same gender without being “crowded.”

In such a way, a household comprised of an adult couple with two sons, aged 4 and 6, would require housing with a minimum of two bedrooms to avoid being considered overcrowded. Change the 6 year old son to a daughter, or age the 6 year old son to 19, and a minimum of three bedrooms would be required.

It’s nice to have a standard of crowded housing, since at some point crowded conditions have negative effects on health. But once a standard is set, well-meaning government programs may end up “disciplining” cultural minority groups, the authors argue.

They cite as evidence the Inuit communities in Arctic Canada, who were semi-nomadic until the 1950s, and lived in “extended family-based hunting camps.” Part of the overall process of cultural dispossession involved getting them to move into modern housing. The fear of overcrowding required special attention from authorities, who stressed the desirability of each family having its own house. The result was an education program designed to change cultural standards of appropriate household sharing and gender propriety that were quite foreign.

The article has a figure used as part of this program, from 1966:

This two-bedroom house is suitable for up to two couples with one baby each, but if any children are 12 or older then it’s only big enough for one family. And the couple can only have 2 children if they are the same gender or one is under 12.

I’m sure many readers are more familiar with this Canadian history — or similar situations from other parts of the world — but this story jumped out at me because it involves official definitions of families, cultural domination/discipline, and real problems of health and well-being. This relates to the “no family” theme insofar as it represents a contest over family self-definition.

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