Break the Silence: Listen to the voices of the most vulnerable

04-24-14
*By Michele Biss, Articling Student.

The voices of the mainstream are deafening right now. The personal experiences of people who are marginalized are being drowned out in the noise of politicians, journalists and broadcasters who seem to have the government’s and the public’s ear.

So, who will help make the voices of people living in poverty louder? Who will provide airtime for the 4 million people in Canada who cannot access sufficient and healthy food? Who speaks up for homeless Canadians to defend against the discriminatory comments of columnists like Chris Vander Doelen, or Margaret Wente who refuse to recognize poverty as anything other than personal failure?

Considering this suppression of the voices of people living in poverty, how do we get the government to hear the poor and adequately respond? How can these voices be amplified? The easy answer is to rely on organizations, such as Canada Without Poverty, whose Board of Directors is comprised of people with lived experiences of poverty.

But what happens when the government attempts to silence these organizations from participating in the discourse about the interests of marginalized persons? Don’t Parliamentarians have some obligation in this regard?

People living in poverty tried to go this route recently with little success. Parliament was poised to move forward on a bill that would have required the enactment of a national housing strategy (Bill C-400), but in February 2013 the governing party made sure it was defeated.

So where else can organizations in consultation with people living in poverty advocate for the voices of their constituents to be heard? The courts? Here too, voices are being silenced.

That’s what happened on September 6, 2013 when Justice Lederer (of the Ontario Superior Court) sided with government lawyers and denied a group of homeless people the right to have a court hearing into whether homelessness in Canada violates their Charter rights.

In this case, Tanudjaja v. Attorney General (Canada) (also known as the Right to Housing Case), four individuals living in poverty and one institutional applicant are arguing that the provincial and federal governments have violated their obligations under international human rights law and section 7 (right to life, liberty and security of the person) and section 15 (equality rights) of the Charter by failing to adopt housing strategies and creating and maintaining conditions that lead to and sustain homelessness and inadequate housing.

Through this groundbreaking case, homeless people in Ontario are trying to speak up and be heard. The reality is that the government isn’t interested in a national or provincial housing strategy – they don’t want to take action to help people living in poverty. But these individuals want the governments to know that they may ignore homelessness in the legislature, but they cannot ignore their constitutionally protected human rights.

But without having seen or heard ANY of the 9000-page evidence about the effects of homelessness, Justice Lederer found that the there wasn’t even a basis upon which the applicants could make a claim against the government. Justice Lederer didn’t want to hear the voices of the homeless in his court. The silence he imposed was deafening. But the applicants, and their representatives are challenging Justice Lederer’s decision at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The challenges for marginalized people to have their voices heard in the courts does not stop at Justice Lederer’s ruling. On March 28, 2014, a number of organizations including Amnesty International – Canada, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), ARCH Disability Law Centre, the Colour of Poverty, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission also fought for the opportunity to have the experiences and voices of particularly disadvantaged constituents affected by homelessness heard in the appeal of Justice Lederer’s decision. They did this because the diverse experiences of people living in poverty must be represented in courts.

Of the eight intervener groups who requested permission from the Court to participate in the appeal, the Attorney Generals of Ontario and Canada fought against the participation of five of them. In particular, they did not want organizations representing people with disabilities, racialized communities and women included in the case. In a blatant disregard for the diversity of the voices of people living in poverty, the Attorney Generals argued that these interveners could not add anything new to the case that the other three could not speak to.

But thanks to the Court of Appeal’s Justice Feldman, the diverse experiences of poor people will be heard in the Right to Housing Case. On March 31, 2014, Justice Feldman determined that all eight interveners would participate in arguments at the Court of Appeal. In her decision, Justice Feldman stated clearly that “each intervener will make a useful contribution to the appeal by framing the argument from the perspective of their constituencies, and by including submissions on the potential effects of the constituencies of the different orders that the court may make”.

A lone female judge pried open the door to let those who are homeless and their representatives in. She understood that among the booming voices of the majority, we must ensure that the voices of the marginalized are not drowned out by all the noise. Now that those who have experienced poverty and their representatives have a chance to break the silence, it’s up to the Ontario Court of Appeal to stop and listen.