Human rights are not a zero sum game

06-7-17

As the country gears up for Canada 150 celebrations this summer, much of the focus has been on celebrations of Canada’s achievements – but the data on poverty shows there is a long way to go.

In Canada, as many as 50,000 people experience some form of homelessness on any given night. Four million Canadian households experience food insecurity. Canada is ranked near the bottom of the list of wealthy countries for overall child inequality. Homelessness in our communities is so substantial that the United Nations has labelled it a “crisis” and a national emergency.

These general statistics are dismal enough – and the impact only gets more acute for different marginalized groups, such as single mother-led households, people living with disabilities, and Indigenous children.

In the face of these number, it is unsurprising that the people in Canada get passionate. A new Yahoo Canada survey shows how much Canadians want to prioritize helping their neighbours by ending Canada’s poverty problem. But sometimes, this passion can lead to divisions in how this aid should be distributed, a response that is often most visceral when veteran homelessness is discussed.

Veteran homelessness is another one of the country’s shocking statistics: 11% of the homeless population in the city of Vancouver are veterans, and in 2015 a study found that 2,250 veterans utilize emergency shelters on a regular basis. New numbers also suggest groups like female veterans are increasingly seeking services because they are currently or are at risk of becoming homeless.

For many, these numbers are at odds with the service of Canada’s veterans, so it is no wonder that the  outrage is so significant – the rallying cry often becomes: “[Group] Demands Aid For Veterans Before Refugees as though this is an inexorable choice.

And it leads to a question: why is our default to assume that economic security and rights can only be afforded to some and not all?

Whether it is refugee communities, international aid, or service provision to people living with addiction, there is a trend claiming we can’t prioritize helping one group when another suffers. But the truth remains that equality and socio-economic rights are not a zero sum game. It’s a false dichotomy to pit different communities against each other around homelessness and poverty. In fact, many of the veterans for whom individuals feel outrage have expressed that they believe Canada has enough resources to help everyone.

Canada does have the financial capacity to end homelessness and poverty for everyone in the country. To demonstrate this, the Alternative Federal Budget published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and collaborated on by organizations in civil society, including Canada Without Poverty, provides a federal budget that can prioritize those marginalized groups – while also working for all people experiencing poverty in Canada.

The false comparison that we can only help one marginalized group to the detriment of another also ignores the reality of Canada’s legal obligations under international human rights. Canada is party to a number of treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which holds countries to a number of human rights, including the right to adequate housing. This means that not only is it ethically – or economically – beneficial for Canada address socio-economic rights for all marginalized groups, it is a legal obligation.

With the National Housing Strategy and Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy around the corner, it’s an ideal time for Canada to step up and embrace our responsibility to address poverty for all people experiencing it.  At the end of the day, the math is pretty simple. It’s not an either/or – because we can do it all. We just need the political will to prioritize ending poverty and homelessness for everyone in Canada so we truly have something to celebrate.

Laura Neidhart is the Development & Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.