In his address to the UN General Assembly last fall, Prime Minister Trudeau made it clear that Canada’s advocacy on human rights abroad needed to be backed up by greater protections for human rights at home. With the release of the National Housing Strategy last November, the federal government took an important step in that direction with a commitment to the progressive realization of the right to housing for all Canadians.
At the launch of the strategy, Prime Minister Trudeau declared, “Housing rights are human rights and everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home … and one person on the streets in Canada is too many.” Yet we expect that 235,000 people across Canada will experience homelessness this year. Each one of them are experiencing the effects of a systemic crisis, a failure to protect their human rights. They are among 1.7 million Canadian households that are living in housing that is unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable without better options in their communities. These households are disproportionately led by women, and feature overrepresentation of seniors, Indigenous peoples, new Canadians and people with disabilities.
One person on the streets of Canada is indeed too many. For all Canadians facing housing need, the lack of decent options that has resulted from our policy decisions impacts all aspects of their lives. It affects their health, makes it harder to find employment they can reach, harms children growing up in overcrowded conditions or whose families are forced to go without other necessities in order to make the rent.
This is a systemic crisis that requires an urgent, serious and systemic response. If we want different results, we need to take a different strategy than the ways we have approached (and neglected) housing policy in Canada before. That’s why the introduction of legislation to implement the commitments in the National Housing Strategy, expected in the coming months, presents an important opportunity for Canada to take meaningful action to change our current course. Not only through concrete action to invest in programs and infrastructure but also to safeguard this fundamental right.
The Prime Minister’s statement and the framing of the housing strategy are the beginning, not the end, of political leadership on the protection of human rights at home and abroad. That’s why the words need to be backed up by law and institutions that are consistent with human rights principles and our international commitments like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. At a minimum, it is essential that the forthcoming legislation include four key elements:
A clear commitment to the right to housing in Canada. Affirming this clearly in legislation and policy ensures we continue our focus on the crisis faced by Canadians for the long-term.
Priority for people facing the most urgent need. This includes a commitment to eliminate homelessness by 2030 (as Canada has committed to under the UN Sustainable Development Goals).
Meaningful accountability processes to address systemic inequality in housing outcomes, whether through courts, public hearings or adjudication processes.
Participation and oversight by people affected by homelessness and inadequate housing where they have opportunities for input, leadership and decision-making.
To ensure accountability there needs to be effective independent monitoring of how the National Housing Strategy is being implemented and housing policy more broadly to make sure that they comply with Canada’s commitments. This means the government’s proposed Office of the Federal Housing Advocate and National Housing Council must be independent bodies that are adequately resourced with the authority through legislation to make recommendations and require remedial action.
Because people in Canada experiencing housing need should have their own opportunity to engage with the policies that are so important to their lives, it’s also essential that they have a forum to bring forward issues of systemic inequality in housing outcomes. The new independent bodies should be reinforced with an adjudication body (similar to the Social Security Tribunal of Canada) to hear claims regarding systemic violations of the right to housing and to recommend effective remedies.
Housing is a human right. As with every other human right we must embed the right to housing in legislation and support that commitment with strong institutions and procedures that empower Canadians to claim their rights, ensure meaningful accountability and achieve far better housing outcomes.
If we want a global leadership role on human rights, we have to earn it.
Alan Broadbent is Chairman of Maytree, and Chairman and CEO of Avana Capital Corporation
Kevin Page is the Co-Chair of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and the founding President and CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.