The Federal Housing Advocate's Keynote Address to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference
Federal Housing Advocate
Office of the Federal Housing Advocate
November 2, 2022
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Thank you Michele for that kind introduction, and thank you all for that warm welcome.
Thank you to Elder Dorothy Peters for the moving prayer this morning, and thank you to Chief Stacy Laforme for welcoming us all to this territory.
I would like to start by acknowledging the gift of joining you here on the traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, Neutral, Seneca, Chippewa, and the treaty holders, the Mississaugas of the Credit River.
I am humbled to be with you all here today at this site that has been a gathering place for Indigenous Peoples since time immemorial and that is now the home of diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people.
I am mindful that this territory is governed by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, a treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Anishinaabeg, and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and waters of the Great Lakes.
This covenant offers an important model for a legal and economic system based on equity and respect, in which everyone takes only what they need, and the dish is never emptied.
The housing and homelessness crisis in Canada shows just how far we have strayed from these obligations.
As a white settler, I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on and learn from this teaching.
I hope that it will guide our work together in the coming days to bring an end to homelessness in Canada.
On a personal note, I am here as a person who has experienced poverty, displacement, geographic marginalization and housing precarity.
I also bring professional experience advocating for tenant rights in the community housing sector, and pushing all levels of government to create a more equitable housing system.
I am honoured to be here with so many lived experts, front line workers, policy professionals, elders, leaders, survivors, funders, researchers, and activists.
I would also like to welcome the biggest delegation from Quebec that we have ever seen at today's conference.
It is important that we reinforce the connections between movements working to end homelessness across Canada and in Quebec.
I will give the majority of my remarks today in English, but I welcome the opportunity to speak with you in French.
It will take everyone's diverse expertise and perspectives to end homelessness and realize the human right to housing in Canada.
I first want to spend some time today to reflect on how we got here – the advocacy journey so far to implement the right to housing in Canada.
Second, I want to provide an overview of Canada's new human rights architecture, including my role as Federal Housing Advocate.
And finally, I want to talk to you about where we go from here.
Let me start by telling you a bit about my advocacy journey.
18 years ago, I was introduced to the affordable housing and homelessness sector.
It was only when I worked on a senior's co-op in Ottawa that I was faced with the reality of how important our non-profit and housing co-operative communities were for the survival of countless of people across the country.
This realization led me to put aside my professional music career, and focus on work with co-ops and non-profit housing providers.
I spent the past five years as Executive Director of Action-Logement, a community organization in Ottawa that focuses on housing loss prevention.
I had the privilege of working with a team that always had a pulse on the latest news in the private rental market and what issues threatened people's homes.
Because my colleagues were so good at their jobs, they did not require me to meddle with their work.
So I poured myself into advocacy.
My team fought for our clients. With their guidance, I fought for my team – and for a better housing and homelessness sector.
I began to see how the whole system is connected, and how homelessness and inadequate housing are a result of this system.
As the question of housing got bigger and bigger, my advocacy spread to the provincial and federal level.
My story is far from unique.
During all the years we were learning and advocating in Ottawa, the same story was unfolding in cities and communities from coast to coast to coast.
Front-line workers were struggling to protect people from falling through our tattered safety net.
Sector leaders were speaking out about the high costs of funding cuts – human costs, social costs, and economic costs.
Activists and advocates were pushing for change at all levels of government.
I knew the housing crisis had hit a tipping point when we no longer needed to convince decision-makers that there was indeed a housing crisis happening.
Working together with others in the sector, we did our homework and suggested an arsenal of solutions.
When the pandemic hit, further increasing the gap in housing disparity, we didn't sleep.
We continued to meet, educate ourselves, and strategize.
And we were using housing as a human right as the main mechanism to make it happen.
Something else changed in the course of our advocacy: people facing homelessness and inadequate housing were standing up for their rights.
First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, women, Black and racialized people, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, youth, seniors, veterans, survivors of violence, people who use drugs, and people who are Two Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and non-binary revealed the many faces and voices of the housing crisis.
They were demanding to be heard.
I want to thank the diverse lived expert leaders and allies who demanded inclusion and equity. Many of you are here today. We would not be where we are without your work.
The movement for the human right to housing in Canada has come a long way. And we still have a long way to go.
It has been almost 30 years since the federal government terminated its national housing program. Provinces and territories soon followed, cutting social housing and weakening tenant rights and rent controls.
In the past three decades we have seen the devastating consequences of those choices. They led to the emergence of mass homelessness, and worsening housing precarity, especially for tenants.
The worst repercussions of the housing crisis in Canada falls on Indigenous people and disadvantaged groups. It widens existing inequalities.
But - as long as there has been housing injustice in Canada, there has also been determined people pushing for change.
Here in Toronto, in 2010, people experiencing homelessness and legal clinics launched a legal challenge, asking the Ontario court to recognize that homelessness is a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The applicants suing the government were seeking not an individual remedy, but a systemic remedy – a National Housing Strategy based in human rights.
Five years later, the case was struck down.
The governments of Canada and Ontario argued that the human right to housing was a matter for legislatures, not courts, to decide.
So activists turned to their elected officials, demanding that the right to housing be recognized in domestic law.
In 2017, the federal government launched a National Housing Strategy, and committed to a human rights based approach on housing and homelessness.
Finally, in 2019 after national advocacy, the National Housing Strategy Act recognized the human right to adequate housing in domestic law for the first time.
This very conference was an important launching pad for that achievement.
The National Housing Strategy Act was won through the vision, determination, and tireless organizing of everyone in this room. Give yourselves a hand!
So – what does it actually mean to have the human right to adequate housing recognized in law?
I want to turn now to a short overview of Canada's new human rights architecture, including my role as Federal Housing Advocate.
The right to housing is more than just a slogan. Canada has signed UN treaties that set out the legal standards for this right.
Most importantly, the right to adequate housing is more than four walls and a roof – it's the right to live in security, peace & dignity.
The right to housing is linked to countless other human rights, like the rights to health, to education, to equality, to work, and to Indigenous rights.
Under international human rights law, there are seven elements which define adequate housing.
EVERYONE has a human right to a home that meets ALL of these criteria.
It is not a privilege for those who can afford it, or have good credit, or who were born in Canada, or who are able to live independently without supports.
Homelessness is an assault on human dignity. It is a violation of the right to housing.
It contravenes our Charter rights to liberty and security of the person.
It entrenches inequality. It perpetuates colonialism. It threatens health and life.
Canada is rightly seen as a beacon of prosperity and human rights – yet for too long, we have allowed this horrendous human rights violation to persist, affecting hundreds of thousands of people each year.
It is absolutely unacceptable that people are homeless in a country like Canada.
The National Housing Strategy Act enshrines the obligation to end homelessness in law.
The Act reaffirms housing as a fundamental human right andcommits the government to the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing.
The National Housing Strategy Act not only recognized the right to housing – it created a series of accountability tools to uphold the right:
- the Federal Housing Advocate,
- the National Housing Council and
- Review Panels.
In February, I was named Canada's first Federal Housing Advocate.
As I assumed this role, I recognized the challenges and the high expectations.
Ultimately, my role boils down to:
- amplifying the voices of people experiencing inadequate housing and homelessness, and
- driving systemic change so that government legislation, policies and programs uphold the right to adequate housing.
It is part of my job description to hold government to account and to make recommendations to improve laws, policies and programs.
My role is independent of government and non-partisan.
I am based in the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
I am Canada's watchdog for the right to housing. My job is to keep the conversation focused on human rights.
And most importantly, I work directly with people affected by inadequate housing and homelessness.
My role involves several tools and responsibilities to advance the right to housing.
There is still much work to be done, but I am proud of the progress that we have made so far.
In particular, I'd like to highlight the launch of a tool for individuals and organizations to share their experiences of systemic housing issues directly with my office.
Of all the work we have done since I was appointed, I have learned the most from meeting with people face to face during my visits to BC, Nunavut, and Nunatsiavut.
It was clear to me during my time in BC in August that people are falling through the safety net.
Some are just one accident away from homelessness – including a man I met who sustained a workplace injury that ultimately resulted in him living in an encampment.
In Prince George, many of the conversations at the Moccasin Flats encampment centred around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and how many people who are unhoused felt they had no safe place to go.
The disparity in Vancouver was obvious: the tent encampment where people are living in Crab Park was silhouetted against a luxury cruise ship in the distance.
Upholding the rights of encampment residents is a priority for me in my mandate.
The criminalization and eviction of encampment residents is a human rights violation of serious concern.
Municipalities need support from federal and provincial governments to help people move into appropriate housing.
But, it was also clear to me that people want to be part of the solution.
They want to live in a community where everyone can have their basic needs and dignity respected.
And they want to claim their rights – for themselves and their community members.
I met with local advocates in Prince George who were pushing for community solutions for residents of encampments there.
They worked together to provide clean water, bathrooms, a community garden, and housing solutions.
I met a man living in the encampment in Stadacona Park in Victoria who bought his own broom so that he could sweep the tennis courts there every day.
He took such pride in this act of care for his neighbours so that they could share a clean space together.
I have just returned from a visit to Nunavut and Nunatsiavut in partnership with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami to learn more about housing in the North, particularly for Inuit communities.
There has long been a housing crisis there – a lack of housing options, overcrowding, unaffordability and government underfunding & neglect continue to negatively affect people's quality of life.
This is an ongoing human rights failure that needs urgent attention.
A common thread in all these issues is the need to change the discourse on housing.
Housing is not a commodity. It is a human right!
In that spirit of treating housing as a human right, I want to talk about where we go from here.
The National Housing Strategy Act gives us new tools to claim the right to housing.
At the same time, there are limitations.
The mechanisms in the Act do not have enforcement powers.
The Act does not give people the option to sue the government for violating their right to housing.
I can't use the Act to force governments to change their ways.
I don't have the ability to take on individual cases – instead, I am empowered to take action on major systemic housing issues, to improve the housing system for everyone.
So right now, you might be wondering, what good is the right to housing then?
What good are rights if they're not going to be upheld? If you have to keep fighting for them?
It took decades to win the recognition of the right to housing in law.
But this is not the end, it is the beginning.
The National Housing Strategy Act and the tools it creates belong to all of us.
They belong to every person experiencing homelessness, facing eviction, living in sub-standard conditions, from coast to coast to coast.
It will take all of us, working together, to make the right to housing real.
To make sure the right to housing is a top priority for governments.
As Federal Housing Advocate, I'm learning how change is made in the machinery of government.
I can open doors and bring our messages to decision-makers.
I will fight for you, and with you, to hold governments to account.
My most important role is to build the power of people on the front lines of Canada's housing and homelessness crisis, to support you in claiming your rights and demanding change.
Here's where I think we should start: The National Housing Strategy.
This 10-year, 72-billion dollar strategy is our best chance to reverse the housing and homelessness crisis – but it is not delivering.
It isn't living up to its own targets of reducing core housing need and ending homelessness by 2030.
Five years into the strategy, homelessness is increasing and rents have become even more unaffordable everywhere.
Research shows that less than 5% of the new units built by the Strategy's two biggest programs are affordable for people in core housing need. It's shameful.
We have seen some important improvements in the Strategy – such as the doubling of funding to homelessness services through Reaching Home, and the success of the Rapid Housing Initiative that will deliver more than 10,000 units of deeply affordable and supportive housing.
But as we approach the Strategy's five-year anniversary on November 22, it needs an overhaul to fulfill its purpose of advancing the human right to housing in Canada.
First, a revised National Housing Strategy must address Canada's legacy of colonialism and systemic housing inequality for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
It must support a For-Indigenous By-Indigenous Northern, Urban and Rural housing strategy.
And, it must ensure the distinctions-based strategies equip Indigenous governments to respond to the housing crises in their communities.
Second, it must ensure its programs are purpose-built to address the needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly people experiencing housing precarity and homelessness.
This includes expanding the Canada Housing Benefit to help low income people stay housed and cope with inflation.
Third, it must focus its funding on the development, repair, and acquisition of housing supply that is not for profit, permanently affordable, and provides community value in exchange for government investment.
And finally, it must prioritize a federal leadership role and a coordinated, all-of-government approach to involve all levels of government in solving the housing crisis.
The National Housing Strategy belongs to everyone in Canada. Let's demand that it work for us.
In closing, I want to honour every single person here – for your tireless dedication to ending homelessness.
Everything, and everyone, we need to end homelessness in Canada is right here in this room.
Whether you are a service provider, a person with lived experience, a researcher, and advocate – or all of the above – your hope and determination is powerful.
Your love for your community is powerful. Your refusal to accept the status quo is powerful.
We have come a long way, and we have a long way to go.
But I know that together, we can and we will realize the right to housing in Canada.
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