The Historic Fight for the Right to Housing in Canada
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the treaty, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on December 16, 1966. It is part of the International Bill of Human Rights and contains the right to an adequate standard of living (including a right to food, water, housing and clothing). Canada ratified the covenant on May 19, 1976
For the next 30-plus years, advocates, organizations, civil society, people with lived experience of homelessness or inadequate housing called on the federal government to officially recognize the right to housing as a fundamental human right in legislation, backed up by meaningful policy to see its implementation and prioritization for society’s most vulnerable and affected groups. The most critical issue raised by the UN during these years, with increasing levels of concern and alarm, was the absence of a housing strategy based on the right to housing In the face of widespread homelessness and serious issues of housing need in one of the most affluent countries in the world, the UN was alarmed that Canada had not adopted and implemented a National Housing Strategy based on the obligation to eliminate homelessness as an urgent priority and to progressively realize the right to housing based on available resources and all appropriate means, including legislation.
The federal government’s decision to adopt the NHS Act in June 2019 by declaring housing as a fundamental human right backed up by an innovative rights-based framework was a direct result of the hard-fought battles by civil society groups and concerted efforts by UN human rights bodies to convince Canada to respond to an obvious human rights crisis.
In 2010, a group of people with lived experience of homelessness, academics, lawyers and advocates in Ontario launched a right to housing legal challenge. The groups were frustrated with a lack of action on the rising homelessness and inadequate housing crisis, which was due to federal policy changes and divestments that emerged from the ’80s and ’90s. The Tanudjaja v Attorney General of Canada and Attorney General of Ontario, also known as the Right to Housing challenge, charged that the federal and provincial governments’ refusals to address homeless as required under international human rights law had resulted in violations of the right to life, security of the person and equality for the groups most adversely affected by homelessness. Those rights, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, must be interpreted consistently with Canada’s international human rights obligations. Four individuals, Ansar Mahmood, Janice Arsenault, Jennifer Tanudjaja and Brian DuBourdieu, and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) stepped forward as applicants to launch the challenge.
Surprisingly, the Court of Appeal, in a split 2-1 decision, dismissed the application in Tanudjaja and declined to hear the extensive evidence that had been compiled by the applicants. The issue of whether the right to life and equality of those who are homeless is protected by the Charter is still an open question that must be determined in a future case by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, however, the case had led to an extensive process of building relationships, mobilizing supporters and exceptional community organizing. In the face of a housing and homelessness crisis that grew worse, even during years of economic prosperity in Canada, the call for governments to recognize housing as a fundamental human right in law, to implement a rights-based framework to ensure accountability and to adopt a rights-based national housing strategy continued to grow louder.
On November 22, 2017, on National Housing Day, we secured our first victory. The federal government announced that it was adopting a National Housing Strategy, committing to the progressive realization of the right to housing and promising to introduce legislation after holding consultations on what a rights-based approach should look like.
The Right to Housing Campaign released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on August 14, 2018 with 170 signatories (totaling over 1,100 by the end of the campaign a year later). The letter urged Trudeau to make good on his commitment on the right to housing by enshrining that right in the National Housing Strategy legislation with meaningful accountability mechanisms, goals and timelines, independent monitoring, participation by rights-holders and access to hearings into systemic issues affecting the right to housing.
The campaign also drafted legislation outlining how this could be done based on the announced elements of the NHS. The federal government also held a consultation process with groups across Canada to inform the legislation.
When the NHS Act was introduced on April 8 in the Budget Implementation Act, 2019, (Bill C-97) it had some of the key elements but lacked any meaningful accountability to the right to housing and didn’t include access to hearings. The campaign pushed for further amendments pressing for a stronger commitment to the right to housing and to add appropriate rights-based accountability mechanisms, including access to hearings
Amendments to the NHS Act were tabled by the government on May 29, 2019 at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance and on May 31, 2019 in the House of Commons. These amendments were largely consistent with the campaign’s proposed changes needed to ensure a decisive and unambiguous commitment in legislation to the right to housing with critical accountability mechanisms in place.
On June 20, 2019, Bill C-97 containing the NHS Act and the right to housing passed the Senate and then received Royal Assent on June 21.
Achieving a legislated right to housing in Canada is the product of advocacy by countless individuals and organizations from coast to coast to coast to coast who have fought tenaciously for decades with protest, advocacy and court challenges to make this day possible.