Many Canadians are unsafe in their own homes, with indoor temperatures consistently exceeding the safe maximum of 26°C each summer, concludes a CBC News investigation that reveals the urgent need to cool a housing stock that wasn’t built for today’s warmer climate.
The most poor and vulnerable Canadians are suffering through daytime heat and humidity levels experts deem dangerous—and there simply is “no escape from the heat” even at night, when indoor temperatures remain unchanged well past sunset, the investigation found.
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The investigation was launched after the national broadcaster noticed “there is almost no publicly available information on how hot and humid it gets inside Canadian homes without central cooling or how long dangerously high temperatures persist.”
That data gap endures, even after climate change brought British Columbia a terrifying heat dome in 2021 that caused 619 deaths, almost all of them indoors in places without adequate cooling, with experts identifying poverty as a key risk factor alongside the important role of high indoor temperatures.
CBC reporters spent the summer months from late June to mid-August monitoring heat and humidity sensors installed in 50 Canadian households—10 each in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto, and Montreal. All the units had “zero to minimal central cooling” and indoor temperatures were recorded every ten minutes.
“In every city, CBC found people living in homes that, the majority of the time, stayed above 26°C—the maximum indoor temperature widely considered safe by experts,” the news story states. “In some places, high rates of humidity made already sweltering indoor temperatures feel even hotter.”
Toronto emergency physician Aaron Orkin said the news report breaks new ground.
“What this gives us, in a way that no other type of data can do, is a sense of what it looks like right in people’s homes, in the places that’s really hardest to escape.”
Vulnerable Canadians Left Helpless
In New Westminster, B.C, 79-year-old Sam Johnson knows the feeling of being trapped in a dwelling made lethal by soaring summer heat. Suffering from congestive heart failure and unable to walk without a cane or walker, she would find it nearly impossible to reach a local cooling centre, as suggested by public health officials for people seeking relief.
“Oh yeah… I can just pop right over there,” Johnson said, making it clear that even if her neighbourhood had a nearby cooling centre (it doesn’t), she wouldn’t be able to get there without great risk to her precarious health.
“I have heart failure,” she explained. “So as soon as I do any type of movement, the sweat just pours off me.”
“And so I could go to the library and I could stay there until six or seven, and then I could come back to this and not sleep all night and then get up and go back to the library.”
Johnson did not suffer such persistently high nighttime temperatures alone. On July 2, sensors inside a Windsor, Ontario home showed temperatures higher than 28°C at midnight (almost 32°C with humidity), even though the temperature outdoors had dropped to 21°C.
The high midnight temperature owed partly to the fact that night cooling, where outside temperatures drop below 20°C, is becoming more rare in the summer.
The Windsor readings showed searing indoor temperatures of 28° to 30°C (without humidity factored in), persisting through the entire 24-hour period between July 1 and 2.
On a summer night when CBC checked in with Johnson in New Westminster, the temperature in her apartment was 29°C—at 9 PM.
Scarborough, Ontario resident Khalil Aldroubi went through a similarly gruelling summer of heat. “More than half the readings from his apartment were above 26°C,” CBC wrote in a separate report. On August 16, the temperature inside his three-bedroom home, which he shares with his wife and five children, stood at 29.79°C.
“We struggle as soon as we put our foot in the building,” Aldroubi said.
As for what the public can do to survive increasingly lethal summer days and nights, experts say cooling centres offer a temporary reprieve, but people must remain vigilant about not over-exerting after visits there. Other tips include putting towels in the freezer, blocking windows during the day, and checking in on vulnerable neighbours.
Cooling Through Efficient Construction
An overheating world makes it all the more important to improve building construction and retrofits. Some experts call for a “shift back to basic” across Canada, using sustainable building techniques to keep residents cool rather than relying on air conditioning as a long-term solution. Vancouver-based heritage consultant Donald Luxton and University of British Columbia associate professor of architecture Sara Stevens say this is especially true in Vancouver, where the building stock is designed for milder weather and ill-suited to rising temperatures.
“I think we’ve forgotten a lot of things that our parents and grandparents probably knew about,” Luxton says. Luxton and Stevens recommend eliminating the ceiling-to-floor glass windows that were installed across the city in the 1980s to sell its scenic views. The problem with all that glass is that it allows in so much heat, which must then be offset by air conditioning.
Installing heavy awnings, using reflective exterior paint, and planting more green space will help cool the city down, the experts add.
Many advocates are also pushing for maximum heat bylaws, in which cities would require landlords to provide cooling that keeps indoor temperatures at or below 26°C in the summer.
In Toronto, where eight of the 10 units tracked by CBC News had readings of 26°C or higher most of the time, Mayor Olivia Chow said she supports the idea of a max-temp bylaw in principle, but worries about landlord backlash in the form of “renovictions” if the costs run to high. She urged Premier Doug Ford’s government to support necessary changes and protections through Ontario’s Residential Tenancy Act.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs responded that cities have the authority to adopt and enforce their own property standards for rental housing, including air conditioning and maximum temperatures. Ontario has passed new legislation to “clarify and enhance” tenants’ rights to install air conditioning in their own units, they added.
“Extreme heat is already the top weather-related cause of death in Canada, and heat waves that affect human health are getting more common due to climate change,” says CBC. “The federal government’s national adaptation strategy, created with provinces, territories, Indigenous nations and municipalities, aims to address heat deaths by retrofitting existing buildings and improving the building code, among other actions.”
Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault also stressed the need to cut carbon emissions as fast as possible.
“The more we delay action, the more there will be people suffering and unfortunately death, in our own country and around the world,” he told CBC Radio’s Laura Lynch.
“Canada aims to eliminate deaths from extreme heat by 2040,” CBC writes.