Sep 22 2016

Report cover

When it comes to lawmaking, one would expect the Canadian government and parliamentarians to uphold the Constitution of Canada — and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms therein. But does it always happen in reality?

In its newest report, Charter First: A Blueprint for Prioritizing Rights in Canadian Lawmaking, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) raises concerns about the frequency and ease with which laws with clear constitutional vulnerabilities have been proposed and passed by Parliament — only to be challenged later, and, in some cases, be struck down by the courts for violating the Charter. Key examples include parts of the Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (Bill C-31), the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51), the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23), the Act to amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations) (Bill C-377), the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), and the physician-assisted dying legislation (Bill C-14).

This has forced affected individuals and public interest organizations, such as CCLA, to launch Charter challenges as the only available recourse. How unfortunate given that some of these challenges — which come at a significant cost not only to the applicants but also the public — could likely have been avoided had Parliament done its duty. And while these lengthy court cases play out, often over many years, the laws in question remain on the books, unfairly and unlawfully restricting the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians.

CCLA’s Charter First report and campaign seek to address critical accountability and transparency gaps in Canada’s federal lawmaking process that can enable the advancement of unconstitutional laws. At no point in the current process are ministers or parliamentarians required to publicly defend the constitutionality of bills they introduce, or of amendments proposed, with any sort of rigorous analysis. At the same time, many parliamentarians simply do not have the resources at their disposal, or the requisite knowledge, to effectively assess the constitutionality of the laws they are asked to enact.

Meanwhile, the limited safeguards currently in place are simply not working. Under section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act, the Minister of Justice is required to report to Parliament when he or she finds government legislation to be inconsistent with the Charter. However, government officials have suggested that the Minister need only report when there is no credible argument to support a bill’s constitutionality. This standard is bafflingly obtuse and so low that, in practice, not a single report relaying concerns about Charter compliance under section 4.1 has ever been made to Parliament. The reason why should be fairly obvious: a government would rather avoid scrutiny — especially on Charter grounds — just as it proposes a bill. Furthermore, none of this covers private members’ bills or Senate public bills — other forms of legislation that can and have raised constitutional concerns.

Thus, the goal of the Charter First report and campaign is to see that new checks and balances are introduced into Canada’s federal lawmaking process — ones that would increase transparency and accountability surrounding Charter issues, and raise the standard of Charter compliance of laws enacted by Parliament. This way, we can help ensure we get it right, from the start, and put the Charter first.

Here is a summary of CCLA’s recommendations:

  1. Parliament should amend the ineffective section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act such that the Minister of Justice is required to issue a detailed statement of Charter compatibility when a government bill is introduced in Parliament.
  2. Parliament should create a position of Charter Rights Officer, with a staff and mandate to provide independent assessments of the Charter compliance of bills, and to serve in an advisory role to parliamentarians and parliamentary committees on Charter issues.
  3. The Senate and House of Commons should review and revise their respective amendment admissibility rules to allow committees to debate and vote on amendments that address Charter concerns regardless of whether they go beyond the “scope and principle” of a bill.
  4. For all government bills, the Charter Rights Officer should issue an independent assessment of Charter compliance, ideally prior to Second Reading in the House or Senate (depending on where a given bill is introduced). If amendments are made at any subsequent point, the Officer should issue addendums, ideally before final votes on the bill are taken. (If the bill was introduced in the Senate and amendments are made by Senators, then the Minister of Justice should issue an addendum to the government statement of compatibility at First Reading in the House.)
  5. For any private members’ bill or Senate public bill that passes Second Reading in the House or Senate respectively, the Charter Rights Officer should issue an independent assessment of Charter compliance. If amendments are made at any subsequent point, the Officer should issue addendums, ideally before final votes on the bill are taken.

To download the Charter First report and join the campaign, please visit


Jonah Kanter is Communications and Advocacy Specialist at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Sep 15 2016
Collage of images

Photo by Pete Rockwell

August 12, 2016, 3:30 a.m.: The last tent is coming down from the courthouse lawn on the corner of 850 Burdett Street in Victoria. As the last remaining residents of what was Super InTent City (SIC) peacefully leave the grounds, I experience a moment of great sadness. I reflect on what the last ten months have meant to the people who have made a community here. What solutions have come about as a result of their struggle? And what lessons remain to us – this city, province, and country – in grappling with widespread and growing homelessness?

Victoria is like many cities across Canada in that it is faced with a protracted crisis of homelessness. A crisis with a straightforward remedy: build more housing. Despite the simplicity of the solution, Canadian cities have not been able to stem the tide of homelessness.

A lack of housing and housing options is the overarching problem. And while the solution may be obvious, Victoria, like other Canadian cities, has been unable to make a meaningful difference in confronting this crisis for far too long. SIC changed the intractable nature of the problem here. Now that the tents have all gone, we have a clear view of what has been accomplished by tackling the issue locally, and can look forward with optimism to what we can do more widely in the future.

Tent cities in B.C. are the visible manifestation of failed public policy, decades of disinvestment in social housing, an abysmal social safety net with welfare rates frozen for nearly a decade, and the lowest provincial minimum wage in the country. Together, these contribute to some of the highest overall poverty and child-poverty rates in Canada. In B.C.’s capital of Victoria, the impacts of these short-sighted public policy priorities have been acutely apparent. In fact, on the night of February 10, 2016, the date of the 2016 Greater Victoria Point in Time Count (PiT Count), there were approximately 1,400 people experiencing homelessness in Greater Victoria. This is shameful.

The provincial government responds

The establishment of a homeless-led community and the beginnings of the SIC movement on the courthouse greenspace in the fall of 2015 was a direct response to this crisis. A year later, we can see that it has resulted in unprecedented levels of investment in the solution. We have been and are building more housing.

Here is what we have seen so far:

  • $86 million investment in housing options; and
  • 714 units of housing for homeless people.

These are directly and indirectly attributable to the existence and advocacy of SIC.

Greater Victoria’s regional government, the Capital Regional District, has released an implementation plan for $60 million in funding that includes:

  • 268 supported housing units at provincial shelter rates;
  • 175 affordable housing units; and
  • More than 440 market rental units.

We have four new properties in our region dedicated to both permanent and transitional housing that have become operational since November 2015, with many more slated to come online by 2018.

While the implementation plan for this housing is far from perfect, it must be noted that before SIC we didn’t even have a plan.

The residents of SIC can claim an important victory. First, every single resident of SIC now has the option of a home indoors. Moreover, in the near future, hundreds of other individuals will have access to housing that was not even contemplated prior to the stand taken by the SIC movement. The homeless leaders of SIC refused to “move along” with nowhere else to go to. They chose to stand up against being displaced back into the streets and doorways of Victoria.

Facing off against a provincial housing minister with over a decade at the head of the portfolio that has overseen – and through negligence, has facilitated – the rapid and tragic growth of homelessness in B.C., SIC was forced to go to court to defend its right to exist without daily displacement. The result was a groundbreaking decision in favour of homeless people. Because of SIC, we have lasting legal precedence that calls to account municipal, provincial, and federal authorities that would seek injunctive relief against homeless people who, when forced to live outdoors, seek to make homes for themselves.

tent city panorama

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Supporting Super InTent City

Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) is the small legal advocacy organization that I work for. TAPS got involved when we saw tents springing up at the court house a few blocks up from our office. We knew it was an important moment. We knew the people living there had been pushed too hard for too long, and that the time had come to take a stand.

I have worked at my desk here at TAPS for the past eight years, and over this time I have walked pretty much the same path from my apartment in North Park to the downtown core on my way to work every day. On my commute, I see the daily impacts of displacement. It’s a rare day when I do not pass police officers standing over a couple of people taking refuge under makeshift shelter erected near Pandora Green – people whose only “crime” is that they cannot afford a home.

I watch as people wearily push overloaded shopping carts with downcast eyes. They are obviously exhausted and hungry. They are headed down the street from neighbourhood parks towards Our Place, a local shelter, on their way to get a morning cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I have seen the number of people making this crawl grow year after year. I watched the pain of displacement and homelessness in action and felt powerless to do anything about it despite the fact that I pass this travesty on my way to work at an anti-poverty legal advocacy organization. What could we do?

TAPS first got involved by attending morning circle meetings held at SIC. This is where many of the residents would come together with members of the wider community to discuss the goings on of SIC. Having seen many of our past and current clients living in the community, we saw that there was space for us to grow our relationship with the residents and to bring whatever resources we could gather to support them in their stand. This meant recruiting and supporting pro bono legal counsel, Cathie Boies Parker and Jasmine McAdams, through evidence-gathering in preparation for two injunction hearings (British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 584 and British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 1245). It meant representing the residents of SIC in court. It meant liaising with local non-profits, churches, politicians, community groups and the media. It meant following the directions of the residents of SIC to support the organization of basic governance and decision-making.

Meeting of residents

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Our work in supporting the residents of SIC was a first for us. For the most part, TAPS provides a face-to-face legal advocacy clinic to assist individuals with administrative law issues in tenancy, welfare, disability and employment standards. Firmly rooted in a “justice not charity” framework, we have always lamented our inability to fundamentally shift the conditions that create homelessness and poverty. We have been overburdened by attacking the individual faults of an overall system we abhor. TAPS has spent countless hours raising public awareness, meeting with ministers and bureaucrats, and working with the media, but nothing has had as great an impact as joining with SIC and turning to the courts to challenge the treatment of people living without homes.

Super InTent City changed something in me and in our organization. We could not and will not continue to sit in our offices politely waiting for change. While certainly the victories belong to the homeless residents of SIC themselves, TAPS undoubtedly played a central and important role – a role that other organizations across this country can and must also take on. We all know this situation is not okay. Fundamental Charter Rights are being violated as the displacement of the poor continues in virtually every corner of every province and territory. I know now that when the opportunity comes around again in this community, we will be better prepared to respond to the needs of the poor. It is my hope that other organizations across this country will be prepared for similar struggles that lay ahead. We can accomplish much when we come together.

Claiming housing as a human right

SIC was not the only community response we have seen to the crisis of homelessness in Victoria. In 2008, community leaders struck the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, we have the peer-led Committee to End Homelessness Victoria, and numerous other homelessness-reduction initiatives led by the local non-profit community.

The difference between SIC and these earlier and ongoing approaches is that SIC brought a recalcitrant provincial government to the table to actually contribute to the solution instead of just talking about one. I am convinced that without the successful legal defense of SIC, the level of investment that we have seen in addressing the problem would never have been realized.

Occupants in front of the court building

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Municipal and non-profit charitable responses alone cannot solve homelessness. Organizations and the homeless themselves must prepare for future opportunities to bring federal and provincial authorities to the table in a way that ensures these actors are forced to do more than talk about the issue. These authorities, left to their own devices, will not make investments to meet the moral obligation of ensuring dignity and homes for all. Undoubtedly, there will be court dates to come. Our Charter of Rights and our Canadian values demand it.

To get there, we must have courage. We must be proactive in seeking out and building relationships with people who are homeless and to follow their leadership so that the next struggle is not one that we are merely reacting to.

I dream about what could have been accomplished had we been prepared in advance of the first tent going up at SIC. In order to realize housing as a basic human right, to move section 7 charter rights toward positive interpretation, we must be ready. We must be organizing now.

On September 12, 2016, the mayor of Victoria awarded Super InTent City with a Mayor’s Medal – Legacy Award. Congratulations to all involved! – Ed.


Stephen Portman is the Advocacy Lead for Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS).

Aug 24 2016

Sketch of nice housing area - iStockphoto

Around this time last year, I was invited to co-edit an anthology exploring inclusive city-building. I’d recently completed a photo essay documenting the social housing community where I lived before my mother completed her post-secondary education and moved us out. She was eager to leave behind all memories of social housing. For her, our time in the community was a shameful blip in a story of immigration and ascension to the “respectable” middle-class. For me, social housing has been a place of significance – a place where I spent my formative years developing unconditional friendships, resilience and city-building values.

It has also been a place fraught with numerous challenges including an under-aged sex trade that I witnessed, which claimed the life of a friend’s older sister. As an adult, working in placemaking and stakeholder engagement across academic and professional contexts, I’ve refused to accept the city’s growing disparity and increase in housing vulnerability. So in many ways when I was approached to co-edit and contribute to Subdivided, an anthology exploring inclusive city-building, my chapter on Designing Dignified Social Housing was already in progress. Using the aforementioned tragedy as a touch point, I explored social housing’s top-down design scheme, place-based stigma, lack of gender analysis and the urgent need to centralize human dignity going forward. I describe this chapter as a work of blood, memory and critique.

My work on the anthology and on this chapter in particular has led to an increased number of transformative social housing conversations with others working to create change. The following are just a few of the conversations that I’ve found to be particularly enriching.

Listening to alternative narratives and local knowledge

Sandra Costain works in a leadership role for a local organization and also lived in Regent Park for the first 23 years of her life. Early in my writing process, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with her to chat about the community and housing overall. Although fiercely proud of the neighbourhood, Sandra didn’t deny its shortcomings – widely publicized challenges such as public drinking, a drug trade and racial and geographic divisions. However, as a local insider, she also revealed the often overlooked beauty of the “old Regent Park.”

Along with her parents, Sandra was surrounded by a village of “aunties” – a local network of women who showered her with love and looked out for her as she attended neighbourhood barbecues or played an evening game of kick-the-can. The story that stood out most for me was about the now demolished Blevins building – a modernist high-rise designed by architect Peter Dickinson that became shrouded in violence and disrepair. What most people don’t know is that this same building was a place where Sandra mentored two generations of young women who created meaningful relationships with each other and later went on to pursue their post-secondary education.

Praise of Sandra’s work with these young women preceded my meeting with her and I was eager to learn more about the program. Due to a desire to engage young women in the neighbourhood, the organization that Sandra worked for tasked her with initiating a group for them.

The apartment unit the group was assigned was filthy-dirty and she asked the young women to meet her on the weekend to clean it up. Although she promised them homemade spaghetti, she secretly doubted that they would spend their day ripping up dusty carpets and scrubbing down every surface. When Sandra arrived to find the women ready to clean wearing head scarves and old clothing she was surprised. Many of these girls had been negatively labelled or written off by the wider community but all of them were dedicated to co-creating a beautiful programming space, which housed health education, life skills training and communal meals.

Most city-builders view the history of the Blevins building in a narrow and negative manner. However, when we take the time to listen to alternate stories told by people deeply enmeshed in social housing communities we can gain more nuanced understanding of specific neighbourhoods, which can help inform programming and placemaking initiatives.

An asset-based approach opens up new possibilities

I first met Michael McClelland, founding principal of ERA Architects, while working on a previous community engagement project and we quickly developed a warm rapport. So when I was invited to exchange ideas with him and his colleagues Ya’el Santopinto and Graeme Stewart, I was excited. We began with updates about our respective social housing initiatives and it was immediately clear that they embraced a comprehensive asset-based approach. I struggled to embrace their positive view of high-rise social housing towers. I’m a passionate advocate of the individuals inhabiting the towers – my early years in social housing exposed me to incredibly resilient and kind neighbours – but I’ve always been very critical of the design of most social housing towers.

However, these design leaders were emphatic that along with residents, the towers are an asset and, if properly retrofitted and maintained, they could be a part of the solution to social housing challenges. Given the firm’s expertise in the area of tower renewal and my general desire to lead by continually learning, I suspended my disbelief and listened intently.

The team outlined how Toronto’s strange configuration of high-density tower communities, built outside of the core, inadvertently facilitated the settlement of newcomers from around the world who require affordable three- and four-bedroom units. Instead of bemoaning the design of these towers, ERA has researched ways that these structures could be used to respond to not only the needs but also the skills and aspirations of residents. They found that outdated zoning bylaws were prohibiting residents from using existing space to better meet their needs.

In respectful collaboration with residents and a number of external stakeholders, such as Toronto Public Health, United Way Toronto & York Region and City planners, they recently addressed this barrier to transformation by advocating for a new, more responsive zoning by-law called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC), which opens up new possibilities for residents to do things like run a part-time barber shop out of their apartment unit or initiate a youth art pop-up shop. This tangible example of how towers can be used for change has expanded my asset-based approach to include tower design.

Shared leadership model contributes to inclusion and succession planning

I was introduced to Stewart Chisholm by a colleague who suggested that we share a similar approach to resident engagement. I learned that Stewart has an extensive background in environmental planning and community mobilization. Like me, he is interested in the complicated intersections of spatial design and social justice. Our first conversation took place around a table with his fellow Toronto Community Housing (TCH) staff members leading a new, resident-focused, pilot project called Reset. We discussed a number of important topics including the need for evaluation and the value of building meaningful resident relationships. Stewart and I began to riff on the idea of a shared leadership model – a model that expands the number of people involved in decision-making processes.

It was apparent that Stewart has spent a considerable amount of time considering the value of this approach. We agreed that a shared leadership model prevents the favouring of TCH residents who are comfortable participating in formal processes. While these residents can bring an important perspective, their needs often differ from those residents more deeply ensconced within social housing’s margins. Stewart also pointed out that a shared leadership approach is practical; it’s a form of succession planning, which safeguards projects from falling apart when one or two individuals move out of the community or onto new opportunities. In a subsequent conversation we also discussed the ways that these hybrid grassroots-governance models can enable residents to take the lead on addressing local issues and also ensure that government doesn’t abdicate their responsibilities.

Equally important, Stewart openly acknowledged his privilege as a white male without lived experience of social housing tenancy or housing vulnerability. I shared that although I am a woman of colour and grew up in social housing, that I too was vigilant about my privilege. I’m aware of the ways race, class, ability and citizenship can create more or less space for individuals within a shared leadership model, and cities overall. Given the personal nature of housing, vulnerability of many residents and historical neglect, it’s important for all of us to be mindful and walk gently within the communities we are collaborating with.

These conversations about social privilege, shared leadership, local knowledge and systemic change are all integral in addressing an increasingly complex range of social housing issues. My work on Subdivided has created unexpected opportunities to talk with people from a wide range of professional and personal backgrounds. I’m more convinced than ever that true social housing transformation is possible but we need to create space for more inclusive, creative and action-orientated conversations.


Jay Pitter is an author, placemaker and senior stakeholder engagement professional.

Aug 11 2016

News desk (iStockphoto)

Some days, getting media coverage for the work we do at non-profits feels like a downright Herculean task. Other days it feels more like wishful thinking. What we do is important. So why is it so hard to get the media to pay attention? One reason is that the media environment is rapidly changing.

News rooms are getting smaller. Fewer journalists are expected to cover the same number of stories. They are overworked and overextended. Every day, they receive many news releases and are pitched dozens of times. Most emails are deleted without a second glance.

It would be easy to just give up – but we shouldn’t. The mainstream media play a profound role in shaping narratives about our society. It is worth your time to build a strong media relations program. However, as with all communications efforts, you have to do it in a strategic way.

For some good advice on how to reach out to the media to get your stories told, let’s hear what some media experts have to say. Maytree’s signature lunch-and-learn program, Five Good Ideas, has experts discuss powerful yet practical ideas on key issues facing non-profit organizations – including how to engage media in your work.

Carol Goar’s presentation on how to talk to the media is a good place to start. Carol, a recently retired Toronto Star columnist, acknowledges that the non-profit sector doesn’t always get the attention it deserves even though it has good stories to share. But, she cautions, don’t just blame the media. Unfortunately, non-profits make unnecessary mistakes that get in the way of getting their stories told.

Her first idea can’t be repeated often enough: Ask yourself why your message is important to the public – in particular the public that reads, watches or listens to the media you’re pitching to.

Before you make a phone call or send an e-mail to a member of the media, ask yourself: Why does my message matter to the public? That’s the first question an assignment editor is going to ask. If you can’t tell him or her why it’s newsworthy, you’ve lost the first battle.

In her session on media relations, Susan Reisler, one of Canada’s best-known public relations practitioners, talks about how to prepare your answer to that question:

Before you talk to a reporter keep your main point in mind. Can you summarize your message in three lines? Rehearse your comments with colleagues. You only get one chance to make the pitch. Reporters truly appreciate the headline that is short and succinct. Remember media is a business. You have a lot of competition for readers’ time as well as their hearts and minds.

While you are pitching, pay attention to the reporter’s tone of voice and/or body language. Are they interested in what you’re saying? Don’t provide too many details, and don’t overstay your welcome.

Susan also reminds us that your preparation starts long before you have a story idea. It starts with being a consumer of media. You need to know who is covering your issues and what kind of stories they are writing about. You can reach out to journalists – anytime, not just when you want something from them – and compliment them on their stories when they do a particularly good job. That way they know who you are when you do have something to pitch and they are more likely to open your email and respond.

Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn lays out five things to do when reaching out to the media:

  1. Respect a journalist’s beat and interest (and that of his or her readers).
  2. Tailor your pitch to the journalist (best way: start your email with the journalist’s first name).
  3. Flattery helps: read what the reporter is writing about and tell him or her that you read it.
  4. Make your pitch concise, human and not artificial.
  5. Include a photo, if you have one, in the body of the email (not as an attachment).

(Bob has five equally important don’ts for pitching – watch the session if you want to hear what you should avoid doing.)

Rob Steiner, Director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto, argues that you need to think beyond the major media outlets in your market. Instead, start focusing on smaller media that cover your special area of interest. They might have smaller audiences, but those audiences might just be the right ones for you.

Then, Rob takes it a step further and argues that you need to become your own newsroom. In his presentation, he explains how you can create a process within your organization to identify the important (and often untold) stories in your field. Start with your staff – and not just those working in communications. All staff can be trained to identify untold stories that could be of interest to media. In addition, they may even be interested in learning how to write, speak on a podcast, or even shoot a video. If your organization has clients, you could also train them to be reporters. Rob suggests identifying clients with an interest and offering them the same training you are offering to your staff.

For many of us, summer means planning for the second half of the year – an ideal time to refresh your communication strategies. Spending a morning or an afternoon with our Five Good Ideas media relations experts is an easy way to get started, and get inspired to kick-start your work for the fall.


Markus Stadelmann-Elder is Communications Director at Maytree.

Jul 21 2016

In our efforts to create social change, are we the proverbial David, or are we actually Goliath?

In this video, social and political entrepreneur Dave Meslin talks with Groundforce founder Chris Cowperthwaite about the art of using the “massive power of the masses” to build strong and engaged teams of people working towards social change.

Drawing on his experiences with the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) and Cycle Toronto, among others, Dave discusses the strategies and tactics he uses to tap into what he sees as the widespread desire to “do something meaningful” and to overcome the obstacles that can discourage people from participating in community action.

Find out:

  • What we can learn from stores about creating enjoyable and welcoming spaces
  • Why he prefers small donations from members to larger grants from foundations
  • When top-down leadership can help or hinder a team
  • Why it’s important to know your members’ postal codes
  • How quilts and exposed pipes can help keep people involved

Lastly, hear why Dave thinks that the last thing we need to make social change is more Dave Meslins.

Watch the video Leadership Development from the Ground Up.


Bonnie Mah is Policy and Communications Officer at Maytree.

Jul 07 2016

Children chasing butterflies

Maytree’s human rights approach to poverty reduction connects with my interest and experience working to improve the lives of children, a journey which began while working as a consultant with UNICEF starting in 1999. I quickly learned that children’s issues are not simply a matter of charity or needs, but a matter of justice and fulfillment of human rights.

Meeting immediate needs versus acknowledging rights

The International Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed by world leaders in 1989 as a special agreement that recognized the right of children to special care and protection. It has received unprecedented international support. In fact, the only country in the world that has not ratified it is the United States. However, in spite of ratifying the Convention, many governments continue to respond only to children’s immediate needs rather than their rights.

Needs- and rights- based approaches present different starting points. Focusing on immediate needs follows a charity model of addressing poverty. In the interest of only addressing the needs of children, it does not consider the broader context and systems which created those needs in the first place. For example, because children may be institutionalized before the details of their situations are assessed, they are vulnerable to the choices that governments or other institutions might make on their behalf. By not looking at a child’s entire situation, it is impossible to recognize where the system might be failing them. This exposes them to band-aid solutions which can result in actions that exacerbate the problem. Declaring a child “at risk,” for example, focuses on how to mitigate that risk or achieve an outcome that separates the child from risk. As a result it does not address how the child landed in the situation in the first place.

In contrast, a human rights approach based on the Convention of the Rights of the Child starts with a holistic view of a child’s situation and considers where the system may be failing him or her. It identifies which rights are not being guaranteed or protected, as well as the root cause of each violation. In the case where parents are not able to protect rights because of poverty, unemployment, marginalization or other circumstances that make them vulnerable, it is the responsibility of the government to provide support and work with them to enable the family to fulfill their children’s rights.

The Convention also guarantees children the right to have their voices considered in relation to decisions that affect them. This means expressing their views in their own voices in a medium of their choice and giving their views due weight. Such an approach adds to the government or institution’s understanding and assessment of a child’s complete situation which can help identify where their rights are not being acknowledged or where the solutions being implemented do not meet their needs.

Labelling children ignores issues with the system

During my time at UNICEF I was responsible for legislation and public policy in accordance with the Convention. This included compiling best practices for juvenile interventions.

In Latin America, where social institutions are often under-resourced, children considered to be “at risk” are institutionalized, rather than having their situations assessed in detail. To do so would require more social workers and healthcare practitioners, more coordination and ultimately an analysis of the system. In the needs-based approach, governments are quick to label children as “street children” or “children at risk,” detracting from the fact that there are systems that are broken that are creating these conditions.

It is a one-size-fits-all approach that treats all children the same, ignoring the specific needs of children with disabilities, those facing domestic violence, sexual exploitation, or who have to work to sustain their families.

I once interviewed a Chilean man who grew up during the 1980s. Government authorities found him begging in the streets and not going to school. Without considering or exploring the details of how he got there, the authorities labelled him “at risk,” separated him from his family, and decided that institutionalization was the best solution for his case. They placed him in an orphanage where he was supposed to be provided with food, education and healthcare.

After experiencing abuse, he escaped and fell into a life of crime. He told me that all the children he met in the orphanage were put through the same procedure, regardless of the details of their situation. Those in charge of the system neglected to assess their individual situations in their entirety, therefore addressing their needs only partially.

A needs-based approach systematically fails children because it doesn’t begin from an analysis of their rights. This approach to “protecting” children was standard procedure in many parts of the world during the second half of the last century and continues in many places today.

What it means to focus on the rights of children

Looking at the above example, what would a rights-based approach look like? When government authorities found the child begging in the streets and not going to school, they would have referred him to social services. He would have met with a social worker, who would have asked about his family and had his overall situation assessed. If possible, the family would have been contacted and interviewed and, from there, they would have assessed and reported on his situation in its entirety.

During the assessment, the social worker would determine whether he was in an abusive situation (i.e. domestic violence or sexual abuse) or if there was a lack of resources to care for him. If it was a case of abuse, this would lead to charges against the adult responsible and their subsequent removal from the home. Before putting him into an institution, social workers would try to find another family member to care for him.

Protecting children’s rights means recognizing that poverty is created and systemic. It also requires us to look at everyone’s ability to claim economic and social rights. This includes rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education.

Children’s rights in Ontario

Children’s rights were recently acknowledged in Ontario through the report Because young people matter, released by the Residential Services Panel convened by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS). It follows a system-wide review of Ontario’s child and youth residential services and offers a critical look at what needs to be done to ensure that children receive quality care.

It is encouraging that during the research phase of the report, among the 865 people consulted across the province, 264 of them were young people. This reflects one of the report’s central themes that the voices of children need to be heard and their rights respected.

Among the recommendations suggested in the report are that MCYS create:

  • An advisory council of children, youth, families and caregivers to provide access to clinical expertise and lived experience;
  • A Data Analytics and Reporting Unit to collect and analyze all data including Serious Occurrence reports, quality of care assessments, as well as data related to gender, race-based and identity rights; and
  • A Continuity of Care Unit mandated to monitor changes in placements and care trajectories of each child in care.

Even though the report does not use a formal rights-based approach, some recommendations and elements are consistent with it, including:

  • Creating mechanisms for accountability and governance;
  • Measuring progress within an organized system of updated and coordinated data and information;
  • Providing access points and improving the quality of service through training and capacity building of staff, addressing the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit young people in residential care and adequate services to marginalized groups; and
  • Including those with lived experience to poverty, in particular youth and their families, in the decision making process.

While the report makes no overt reference to the Convention of the Rights of the Child or to the improvement of the domestic legislation or regulation, it is an important step toward examining the systems that create poverty, protect children’s rights, and ensure that children can actively assert their rights.


Amaya Renobales is an International Human Rights Consultant and Maytree Intern

Jun 16 2016

Tower of houses - iStockphoto

Earlier this year I joined the Maytree team to lead several emerging initiatives on housing affordability. My background in global development and international relations (largely rooted in human rights), my experience in the world of social innovation and social finance, along with my work on housing affordability and urbanism, has led me here.

In my role I focus on engaging with partners to explore new thinking and approaches and help move them from concept to action. As someone with experience in strategy and collaboration and a passion for seeing projects get off the ground and evolve, I’m excited to contribute to Maytree’s work.

Cities and provinces across Canada are currently pursuing strategies that aim to break the cycle of poverty. Central to these efforts is ensuring that people can find a decent, affordable place to live. In Canada, access to safe, secure and affordable housing is an important factor in our understanding of what it means to be an inclusive and prosperous society. The right to adequate shelter is essential to living with dignity and supporting well-being. At Maytree, as we focus our work on rights and poverty, housing affordability has emerged as an important area of impact.

Maytree’s emphasis on durable solutions to poverty means supporting multiple interventions on an issue. Together with our partners, we’re looking for ways to make the housing system more equitable and tackling affordability by working directly with residents, partnering on innovative ideas, and exploring policy options to protect the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable members of society.

Here are a few areas we’re focusing on:

Working with residents

Engaging people with lived experience of poverty
We are investing in processes that engage tenants and residents, building their capacity to shape and implement viable solutions to safe and secure housing. This includes Maytree supporting the process of engaging with tenants living in Toronto Community Housing to facilitate local discussions during the City of Toronto’s public consultation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Toronto Community Housing.

Supporting innovative ideas

Tower Renewal Partnership
The Tower Renewal Partnership is an initiative to transform aging post-war apartment tower neighbourhoods into more complete, resilient and low carbon communities through retrofit, connected growth and community-led revitalization. Tower neighbourhoods are a critical piece of the affordable housing system in large urban areas, the majority of which are in need of significant energy and community investments to ensure they are safe, healthy and vibrant places to live. The Tower Renewal Partnership is led by the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, DKGi and Maytree.

A Way Home
Maytree has supported A Way Home, a national coalition whose work focuses on preventing, reducing and ending youth homelessness in Canada. Its work focuses on supporting communities and governments to develop and implement comprehensive strategies. A Way Home’s Youth Homelessness Human Rights Guide was developed in partnership with Canada Without Poverty, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless). The guide, which was released in Canada and Europe on June 9, aims to assist in the identification of systemic causes and solutions to homelessness by bringing human rights to the forefront of decision making. It will be contextualized for the European Union and translated into a number of languages in the Fall.

Policy opportunities

The Housing Benefit
A housing benefit (or housing allowance) would help people pay their rent. Unlike traditional social or affordable housing programs, where a certain group of homes are set aside in which tenants pay a rent that is affordable to them, a housing benefit stays with the people rather than the home. Households in need could use the benefit to help them afford rent in a home of their choice, including privately-owned buildings. A recent research report by Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy looked at possible design approaches for a housing benefit (sometimes called a housing allowance program). Maytree’s policy brief Could a housing benefit help tackle our affordable housing challenge? provides an introduction to how a housing benefit program works and how it could be a step towards universal access to affordable housing.

National Housing Collaborative
The National Housing Collaborative (NHC) is a time-limited, cross-sector initiative developing a defined number of targeted, transformative policy options that can inform the national housing strategy committed to by the current federal government. Convened by United Way Toronto & York Region and supported by Maytree and others, the NHC recognizes housing is integral to the health, well-being and prosperity of our society.

Shaping Futures
We are also participating in Shaping Futures, an international knowledge exchange and knowledge-building project. Its aim is to provide a forum for dialogue on housing policies for the 21st century. Shaping Futures is bringing together experts from Australia, Canada and the UK with input from the US, the Netherlands and France. Building on existing research and knowledge, it will create new insights and directions for policies.

As we work in each of these areas, we are engaging with people with lived experience of poverty, allies in government and civil society organizations, policy advisors, employers and major institutions. It is only by working together and seeking a variety of solutions that we can transform our cities to become more inclusive and resilient.


Hadley Nelles is Lead, Housing Affordability at Maytree

Jun 09 2016

image from report cover

Last summer I was fortunate to meet Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, at a conference concerning the legal needs of street youth. I hung on to her every word, as it makes so much sense to ground our arguments and strategies concerning youth homelessness in international human rights law.

Just last week the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness launched the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness. The definition asserts that:

Youth homelessness exists because of the denial of the basic human rights of young people and once identified as such, must be remedied as such. Practically, this means that policies, laws and strategies aimed at youth homelessness must recognize international human rights obligations, and be grounded in a human rights framework that will inform all stages of development, implementation and evaluation. A Human rights approach requires a paradigm shift, so that instead of creating laws which discriminate or punish youth, all levels of government must urgently address the systemic causes of youth homelessness and provide legal protections for their human rights, including the right to housing. It is an understanding that youth homelessness is not merely about individual circumstance, but rather a failure of states to act on their human rights responsibilities. (Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness, p. 7)

On June 8, 2016, A Way Home Canada released a comprehensive Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit to ensure communities have the knowledge and tools to plan and implement strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Following the Toolkit, we’re proud to release what we consider to be a companion guide to enable communities to adopt and effectively use the language of international human rights law in their plans. Youth Rights! Right Now! Ending Youth Homelessness: A Human Rights Guide is a collaboration of Canada Without Poverty, A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless).

To help us launch the guide, which was funded by Maytree and the Laidlaw Foundation, Lelani has prepared a short video concerning youth homelessness and international human rights law. Please circulate widely and remember that ALL youth have human rights!

Originally published on The Homeless Hub blog.


Melanie Redman is Executive Director, A Way Home: Working Together to End Youth Homelessness in Canada

May 24 2016

map of Canada made of housing - iStockphoto

In April 2016, I participated in the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) Conference where I connected with a variety of stakeholders on the issue of affordable housing. The conference included insights from journalists, all three orders of government and housing advocates from communities across Canada. It offered a space for policy discussions, networking opportunities, and a chance to explore best practices from different parts of Canada – and beyond.

Here are some of my takeaways; many of which are key issues that are currently top-of-mind to housing advocates.

National Housing Strategy met with hope and skepticism

During the panel “A Post-Budget Analysis – Applying Federal Policy Change to the Municipal Housing Agenda,” Pamela Hine from the Yukon Housing Corporation moderated a discussion with Jeff Morrison, executive director of CHRA, and Carole Saab, Senior Director, Policy and Government Relations, Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), about how to best leverage the “down payments” promised in the federal budget.

The panel left the audience both hopeful and skeptical. Hopeful that this was the beginning of a long-term relationship with the federal government, yet wary that this government would have the resolve to fund housing into the next decade as needed.

This led to a question about the promise of a National Housing Strategy. One audience member pointed out that if we want to own the strategy we have to ensure opportunities for all voices to be heard.

The good news is that many municipalities have already developed strategies with broad consultation. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to keep a firm grip so that the strategy remains in the hands of community stakeholders.

The right to housing

A panel of activists and thinkers from across Canada (BC, NWT, ON, and QC) wrestled with the idea of “What Does the Right to Housing Look Like in Canada?” Panelists shared a variety of perspectives: urban, rural, and northern as well as a First Nations’ point of view. They were in agreement that we do not currently have the right to housing in Canada. But because Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, they also agreed that the country needs to think of housing as a right.

If Canada had an articulated and enforceable legal right to housing for everyone, as has been introduced in other jurisdictions such as Scotland, it would be easier to work on and implement promising housing strategies. Housing First, for example, moves people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, subsequently providing them with necessary supports. Yet as promising a solution as Housing First is, this approach is not the same as the right to housing. In fact, to be successful, it relies on the enforceability of the right.

The discussion concluded with a delegate from the Aboriginal Housing Management Association commenting that with the federal government’s nation-to-nation focus, First Nations groups might have the best opportunity to lay the groundwork to achieve the right to housing as a policy.

Urban renewal: examples from Paris

Generally all major urban centres have seen double digit increases in prices of housing and appreciation of property, as this article in MoneySense shows. At the conference we heard that without policy and resources that address urban change, people will be dislocated, leaving families living far from work, school and healthy food.

It was fascinating to hear that Paris has recently decided to increase the amount of social housing to 30 percent as a way of mitigating gentrification in the downtown core. As well, the Paris Transportation Workers Union developed housing in a variety of neighbourhoods so that workers could live near their work. In Toronto this would mean a TTC employee who works in Scarborough living in Scarborough instead of Etobicoke.

The Paris experience also builds on the idea of aligning goals and activities such as creating access to social housing, reducing of greenhouse gasses by lower travel times and distances and leveraging asset development based on pooling of resources.

Showcasing good housing practices in Montreal

A definite highlight of the conference was the mobile tours which introduced delegates to different Montreal neighbourhoods.

The first tour, Strategies for Inclusion of Affordable Housing in New Residential Developments, showcased a range of social housing, co-ops, and mixed development below market rate condominiums with social housing units on a 1:3 ratio. For me, the most impressive aspect was the investment in housing at the Rosemont metro station with below market rate condos, social housing and an amazing co-op with geothermal heat, solar dryers, and AutoShare cars, all within 100 metres of the metro station and a brand new library across the courtyard.

The second mobile tour, The End of Shelters – A New Vision of Emergency Services and Access to Permanent Housing, started at the Brewery mission. We were introduced to the process that men and women go through as they access shelter, move to transitional housing and then get a unit relatively quickly, depending on the issues they have.

We also visited two organizations in Point Saint Charles. The first was Ril Point Saint Charles, a non-profit working to improve housing for the residents in the area. We then visited Batir Son Quartier, a collaborative non-profit that has developed 10,000 units of housing, much of it cooperatives, while focusing on its mission to serve grassroots organizations with strong memberships. I loved this organization; it was focused, humble and knew who it was serving – the residents of Point Saint Charles.

Overall the congress was one of the better conferences on housing – perhaps because we seem to have a government that is acknowledging its responsibility for investing in a housing future. Similarly, the representation of delegates from across the country and especially the number of First Nations providers was encouraging.

My hope is that many of the connections that were formed will lead toward:

  1. establishing a platform that stakes claim for the upcoming consultations on a National Housing Strategy; and
  2. developing a codified right to housing which could potentially enshrine a national housing program with long-term investment horizons.

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) is a national organization with the mission of ensuring that all Canadians have an affordable, secure and decent place to call home. 

This year, Maytree supported Victor Willis, Executive Director at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) to attend CHRA’s annual conference, which brings together housing advocates from across Canada.



Victor Willis is the Executive Director at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC)

Apr 27 2016

Photo - poverty protesters

Individuals and families receiving provincial social assistance are living in the deepest poverty in Ontario. Many are poorly housed, hungry and sick.

Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are supposed to provide assistance to people who are in financial need. Unfortunately rates are so low for the 900,000 people who rely on social assistance, that once on the programs, many recipients spiral deeper into a cycle of poverty.

Ontario’s social assistance rates do not reflect the real costs of living in communities across the province. This is partly because the provincial government does not set social assistance rates based on an evaluation of the actual costs of basic necessities, but sets them according to other political considerations.

Benefits include two parts: a shelter allowance and a basic-needs portion. In 2016, the shelter allowance for a parent with one child was set at $609 a month by the provincial government – an amount so low that it bears no resemblance to costs families are forced to bear. In the Toronto area, with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment running at almost $1,300 a month, families on social assistance are often forced to find deficient and unhealthy alternatives. Many families spend upwards of 80% of their income towards rent, placing them at extreme risk of homelessness.

The inadequacy of social assistance rates are also felt at Ontario’s food banks. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, nearly 70% of all people coming in for emergency food are in receipt of provincial social assistance programs.

The lack of healthy food and safe shelter affects health. As a result, those living in deep poverty are far more likely to suffer from chronic conditions or poor mental health.

Social assistance rates have been set at an inadequate and inhumane level. Rates today, adjusted for inflation, are still lower than they were before a former provincial government slashed them by 22% overnight in 1996. This level of inadequacy is contrary to Canada’s commitment to human rights through the UN International Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, to which the provincial government is bound. The rights of the most vulnerable have been grievously ignored for twenty years.

There’s now a push to address these inadequate rates through a new advisory group.

On April 14, 2016, the private member’s bill 185, Ministry of Community and Social Services Amendment Act (Social Assistance Research Commission), presented by Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Member of Provincial Parliament Paul Miller, passed second reading unanimously (80-0), with assenting votes from all political parties. The advisory group, or “Social Assistance Research Commission,” would be created through bill 185.

Should the bill become law, this Commission would be tasked with defining regions in Ontario based on economic geography to determine the cost of living in each region and recommend provincial social assistance rates based on this analysis. Bill 185 is now bound for the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills for review.

This is groundbreaking work and represents the first real political momentum to address social assistance rates in a generation.

Bill 185 would also address some of the critical components to a human rights approach to poverty reduction, including having measurable goals, timely evaluations, and engaging people with lived experience of poverty. The bill would appoint experts knowledgeable on the economic and fiscal challenges of Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees and injured workers.

The bill would create an arms-length process to recommend adequate social assistance rates (somewhat similar to the method for determining MPP salaries). Apart from the costs of housing, food, clothing and hygiene, the Commission would also be tasked with looking at transportation, internet access, and basic telephone service. The ability to participate in society and to be free from isolation are necessary to an individual’s equal participation in their community.

The bill would also mandate the Commission to look at the interaction between social assistance and precarious employment, child support payments and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. No legislation exists in isolation. Weakening of employment standards directly contribute to recurring periods on social assistance. Child poverty is directly affected by provincial treatment of child support and other benefits.

Bill 185 is an important step forward towards fixing social assistance and restoring opportunity, dignity and a future for its recipients.

For more information about bill 185:


Laura Cattari is vice president of Canada Without Poverty and chairs the social policy working group of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction @AdvocacyHamOn


Tom Cooper is director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction @tomcoopster