The pressing need for adequate housing in Canada



Next week is Homelessness Action Week across British Columbia, which is timely considering the debate on Bill C-400, An Act to Ensure Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable housing for Canadians, is set to take place in the House of Commons on October 17th (which happens to be the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty – this couldn’t be more appropriate!).  With estimates that 1.5 million households in Canada are in core housing need (pay more than 30% of income on shelter), and 300,000 – 900,000 are homeless (visible and hidden), the importance of housing cannot be understated.

Housing is a key social determinant of health and is recognized as a core tenant in stabilizing individuals and families who are struggling in poverty and/or with addictions and mental health issues.  With numerous academics, health professionals, non-profit organizations and individuals speaking about the need for more affordable housing in Canada, it is hard to believe that the federal government has cut funding by more than 1/3 and has plans to go even further.  This will leave people struggling in an even more precarious, and sometimes dangerous, situation and it goes against our right to adequate housing which is explicitly stated in the United Nations Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Today in Halifax, NS, CWP Executive Director Leilani Farha speaks to this issue at forum titled,

Bringing International Human Rights Home:  Global Strategies and Local Realities
Public Forum on the UN Human Rights Treaty Process,

Food Security, and Social Justice Advocacy

*See the full flyer for the event here.

What Leilani reminds us is that while the federal government may not be listening to the needs of Canadians and respecting the right to housing, the United Nations is paying attention and concerned about what is happening in Canada.  An excerpt from her speech today illustrates this point:


“… finding the situation in Canada to be unacceptable, in light of the relative wealth of the country.  In some ways its almost embarrassing how many bodies at the UN have expressed concern: Treaty Monitoring Bodies: Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights CESCR), Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination [as well as the] UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, and the Human Rights Council (HRC) – the highest human rights body within the UN system  —

All of these bodies have consistently expressed concern regarding homelessness and poverty in Canada, and the lack of access to effective remedies for violations of economic, social and cultural rights (ESC) rights, like the right to adequate housing. Let me give you some examples of what these bodies have said:

1993 – expressed concern … poverty, homelessness, security of tenure …

In 1998 and 2006 when Canada was up for review by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it again expressed concern about inadequate housing and homelessness amongst particular vulnerable groups – girls, single mothers, women leaving violent relationships, people with disabilities – and then recommended very clearly:

That “the federal, provincial and territorial governments address homelessness and inadequate housing as a national emergency by reinstating or increasing, where necessary, social housing programmes for those in need, improving and properly enforcing anti-discrimination legislation in the field of housing, increasing shelter allowances and social assistance rates to realistic levels, and providing adequate support services for persons with disabilities.”

And then the Committee specifically urged Canada to implement a national strategy for the reduction of homelessness that includes:

–      measurable goals and timetables,

–      consultation and collaboration with affected communities,

–      complaints procedures, and

–      transparent accountability mechanisms, in keeping with international human rights law.

The recommendations in 1998 and 2006 of the CESCR were underscored when the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing came on a mission to Canada in October 2007.   He spent a good deal of his mission in Ontario – Toronto, Ottawa and as a result of what he saw and heard in this province and elsewhere, his recommendations mirror those of the CESCR and are clear:

90. The Special Rapporteur calls for Canada to adopt a comprehensive and coordinated national housing policy based on indivisibility of human rights and the protection of the most vulnerable. This national strategy should include measurable goals and timetables, consultation and collaboration with affected communities, complaints procedures, and transparent accountability mechanisms.”

The HRC, in its 1999 review of Canada made the link between homelessness and the non-enjoyment of the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

2008 CEDAW …  concerns regarding women’s poverty; ESC rights violations and missing and murdered aboriginal women;

Finally, and most recently, under the Universal Periodic Review Process – which is a peer review process – States examine other States in terms of their compliance with international human rights law.   There, the Human Rights Council – that is, other States – recommended that Canada “intensify the efforts already undertaken to better ensure the right to adequate housing, especially for vulnerable groups and low income families.”  And that Canada implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur.”


What this speech tells us is that not only do organizations and individuals within Canada feel that current housing policy and funding is inadequate, but that international organizations and other countries agree that Canada needs to take immediate action on housing issues.  And this is not a new recommendation.

Next year in May the second Universal Periodic Review of Canada’s human rights record will take place in Geneva and member states will again make recommendations to the Canadian government on issues such as housing.  It is likely that much of the debate that will take place in parliament on October 17th around the housing bill could be replicated during the UN review. What is not clear is whether the current government will heed the advice of experts, concerned citizens, people living in dire circumstances and proven facts.