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A geographer tackles social inequalities

Don’t challenge Mylène Riva to tell you the names and locations of the Indigenous communities living in Canada’s North: she knows them by heart! Riva, a professor in the Institute for Health and Social Policy and the Department of Geography at McGill University, started learning them around the age of 10, when she received her very first atlas. Today, she is leading research projects in collaboration with a number of northern populations. “Geography is my passion! As a child, I’d say that I wanted to study in the field and stay in school my entire life,” she says. And that’s exactly what she did.

Mylène Riva completed her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in geography at Université de Montréal.  After earning a postdoctorate at Durham University, UK, she was recruited by Université Laval to focus her work on the health of Indigenous populations. With a prestigious Banting Fellowship in hand, she joined the team led by the late Éric Dewailly to tackle the housing crisis gripping Nunavik and Nunavut.

Is moving good for Inuit health?

“There is not enough housing to support the rapidly growing demographics of Indigenous peoples,” affirms Riva. “It’s common to have at least six people living in a two-bedroom home.” In 2014 and 2015, several hundreds of social housing units were built in Inuit communities to help reduce overcrowding and improve their health and wellbeing. “Access to a new home doesn’t necessarily provide better living conditions,” warns Riva. “People sometimes move away from their extended family, which can increase poverty and food insecurity in an environment in which the cost of living is very high.” She believes that the issue of housing construction must be addressed in a broader social and cultural perspective. The researcher is currently working with Inuit organizations to document the experience of moving and its health impacts on individuals and communities. “Our results will be used to guide housing policy. For example, due to costs, many new units have only one or two bedrooms. But families grow quickly, and it’s important to consider that,” she says.

The hidden face of maternity leave in academia

Sensitive to all social inequalities, Mylène Riva deplores that, in certain centres, parental leaves are paid out of a researcher’s own funding. “This can hinder the hiring and work experience of young investigators,” she affirms. Riva also admits that starting a family can be complicated for women since academia determines a researcher’s worth based on the number of scientific publications and research grants.  “There is a changing trend but inequalities persist,” says the young mother. Mylène Riva firmly believes that the research community must redefine its vision of productivity so that all researchers can have a fulfilling family life without having to sacrifice their careers.