After exhausting every legal avenue in Canada, affordable housing activists are taking their landmark “right to housing” Charter challenge to the international stage.
On Monday, two Torontonians will be in Geneva to make the case before a United Nations committee conducting a 10-year review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.
“We have a housing crisis in Canada,” said Mike Creek, who slipped into poverty and homelessness after a cancer diagnosis in the early 1990s and now works in the city’s anti-poverty movement. “It is a national disaster that is ignored by our governments.”
The crisis is also ignored by Canadian courts, said Kenneth Hale, who is joining Creek at the UN committee hearing.
“It’s not like we went to court and made our case and didn’t convince the judges,” said Hale, legal director of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, a legal aid clinic that supported the Charter challenge.
“We were blocked from being able to present the evidence and have it balanced against the government’s evidence,” he said. “It further marginalized marginalized people.”
The Charter challenge, launched in 2010 by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and four homeless and precariously housed Torontonians, claimed federal and provincial inaction on homelessness violates security and equality rights.
But the case, including 10,000 pages of evidence filed by the applicants, was never heard because lawyers for Ontario and Ottawa introduced a successful motion to strike in 2013. The activists appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in June 2015 refused to hear the case, essentially upholding the lower court’s view that legislatures, not the courts, are the place to fight homelessness.
The motion to strike “felt like we were being kicked again, denied even a hearing in the court of laws, our own governments fighting against us.” Creek said. “I felt such shame that I lived in a country that would not recognize these very fundamental rights.”
During last fall’s federal election, the New Democrats and the Liberals spoke about housing as a human right and the need for a national housing strategy. But the activists say responsibility for housing in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is fragmented among three ministers — Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
“Despite pre-election promises, a rights-based national housing strategy with specific funding and construction targets for affordable housing have not been included in any of the mandates,” the group says in its submission to the UN committee.
Neither has the government confirmed its promise to maintain federal operating agreements for 350,000 subsidized units across Canada, they add.
A spokesman for Duclos said his minster’s mandate letter is clear about Ottawa’s plans to get back into affordable housing.
“At this point we do not have the exact (timetable.) That is what we are working on,” said Mathieu Filion. “We will be making some announcements in the near future about all of this.”
University of Toronto senior researcher Emily Paradis, who presented Canada’s spotty record on housing to the UN committee in 2006, said expectations are high.
“For some time, Canada’s international reputation has been in serious decline and we’ve really gone from being a beacon of human rights globally to a country whose reputation is very much in question,” she said. “I would certainly hope that this review offers an opportunity for Canada to redeem itself.”