It could be the moment we’ve been waiting for. This week – and in the coming weeks or months—the federal government will release information about Canada’s first National Housing Strategy (NHS). The strategy comes not a moment too soon, with homelessness and housing insecurity in Canada at crisis levels.
You’ve probably heard the statistics before: at least 235,000 people in Canada experience visible homelessness, with 35,000 individuals living rough on any given night. Housing affordability is a growing concern across the country, especially for those living in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where housing is viewed as a commodity rather than a right, and the numbers of those spending over 30% or more of their income on rent has skyrocketed.
The NHS is a major opportunity for Canada to show leadership on housing. For decades, Canada has lagged behind its peer countries in social and economic areas like housing, being the only G8 country without a housing strategy. Since the early 90’s the country has seen increasing divestment from the federal government and a framework that has shifted the responsibility of providing housing almost entirely to provincial, territorial, and local governments. Perhaps more critically is the hesitancy of the federal government to take necessary steps to implement the right to housing through a national strategy and other housing laws, policies, and programs
But why the right to housing and what does that look like? Sometimes we hear from people – members of the public, media, and government alike – that it seems like this is a “quasi-right” or that focusing on human rights isn’t important when it comes to housing.
The fact of the matter is that the call for a rights-based NHS is not new. It’s something that civil society organizations like Canada Without Poverty (formerly NAPO or the National Anti-Poverty Organization) and international authorities have been calling for since Canada signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976 – the human rights treaty which guarantees the right to housing in Article 11.
In 1998, the United Nations (UN) called on Canada to create a national strategy for housing—and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has repeated this recommendation over and over again since then, most recently in 2016. Each time Canada has appeared before the UN, the federal government could report no progress on a strategy.
In a 2009 mission to Canada, Miloon Kothari, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, echoed this by saying, “Canada is one of the few countries without a National Housing Strategy”, and in 2013, at the Universal Periodic Review, the UN Humans Rights Council recommended that Canada develop a national strategy.
But it isn’t just UN committees and international bodies calling for it. Canada itself has committed to international programmes that continue to underscore the importance of both the right to housing and a national housing strategy.
In 2015, Canada joined 192 other countries in signing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which include the goals of “no poverty” and “sustainable cities and communities”. When Canada undergoes its voluntary review on our implementation of the SDGs, you can bet our failure to address the housing crisis will be front and centre yet again if the federal government does not put forth a housing plan that so many people in Canada desperately need.
People experiencing housing insecurity have suffered unnecessarily for too long waiting for a strategy. So, what would a strong NHS look like?
It would be backed by dedicated and sufficient funding. It would be accompanied by legislation that guarantees the right to housing. And most critically, it would be based in human rights.
Concretely, a rights-based approach must set targets and timelines based on human rights obligations; the government must report on success and progress; and they must genuinely engage first voices – input from people who have experienced homelessness and insecure housing. Most importantly, the strategy must be accompanied by a claiming mechanism to allow people in poverty to have their voices heard. Without these essential rights elements (and others), a strategy on housing won’t get Canada very far in addressing what’s been called our “national emergency”.
There are real stories behind those 235,000 people facing homelessness every year – and we stand with them as we await a national plan. It’s time for Canada to step up and emerge as a leader with a rights-based National Housing Strategy.