Publications, opinions, and speeches


Building up the human rights city

Published on 24/09/2020

Around the world cities are standing up to local and national governments, demanding rights on asylum, climate change, income equality, disability rights and housing. Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree, spoke to Sukanya Pillay on the Just Planet podcast.

In this lively discussion, Elizabeth talked about some of Maytree’s strategies for building strong vital communities, working with local, provincial, and federal governments to end poverty, and bringing human rights laws and principles into decision-making that works for all.

In particular, Elizabeth discussed:

  • Protecting people from being evicted,
  • Joining with other organizations to protect the rights of people living in homelessness,
  • Providing income security when jobs are lost or suspended,
  • Listening to and learning from people with lived experiences,
  • Building a human rights culture, and
  • Understanding the important roles of civil society and government in a national crisis.

Full podcast transcript

(Please note that the transcript was edited for clarity.)

Sukanya: Welcome to JUST PLANET, the podcast about Laws, Life and Global Crises. I’m your host Sukanya Pillay.

Around the world people in cities are taking action.

They’re deciding how they want to live and how they want to be governed. This could mean that cities stand up to state or federal governments and say, this is a sanctuary city for asylum seekers. Or it can mean that the residents of the city stand up to their city government and say, we will not allow you to keep overlooking housing rights.

For cities to take these stands, they need a deep understanding of how human rights move from being words, to actually being enjoyed on the streets in their communities. It means they understand the relationships between public goods and private sector interests.

It means they know how to organize and take their messages straight from the hearts of community, to municipal government and even to the highest echelons of government in their country. Today, I’m speaking with the leader of an organization that has understood the strength of local communities and driving solutions to end poverty.

And to actually realize, not just talk about, human rights. The organization is Maytree and their president is Elizabeth McIsaac.

Join me now for our recent conversation and hear Elizabeth discuss Maytree’s actions during the COVID-19 crisis, their wins, and their long-term strategies for strengthening cities.

I’m delighted to have Elizabeth McIsaac on the show today. She’s the president of Maytree.

Hello, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Hello, Sukanya.

Sukanya: So I was thinking, as we were preparing and setting up mics about how we got to this place of doing a podcast, do you remember?

Elizabeth: I think I do.

Sukanya: I thought our listeners might like to know about it. Why don’t you talk about what some of the things that Maytree does and then I can jump in.

Elizabeth: I guess just a bit of a primer of what Maytree is. We’re a private charitable foundation in Toronto. We’ve been around for about 35 years and about five years ago, almost six years ago, the decision was made to focus the attention on poverty and human rights.

The foundation had always been concerned with reducing poverty, finding solutions to poverty, but the decision was made to really go deep on what a human rights approach to poverty would look like. And as we got into it, we began to sort of flush out – What does that mean for us in terms of what we do? What kind of grants do we make? What kind of convening do we engage in? – the things that foundations can do. We began to break out different elements of how do we get at poverty through a human rights lens.

And one of the things that we noticed early on was that our sense of human rights as a culture in Canada had really not evolved. There was a really bold sensibility around human rights in Canada, but certainly in the last few decades that was fading somewhat. And so there was a sense around how do we strengthen the public narrative around human rights.

And so one of the things that we made – it’s a very small engagement or grant that we made – was with the University of Toronto. There was a program there, a post-program on journalism that Rob Steiner was running out of the Munk School at the time. And he came to us and said, “you know, is there any interest in what we’re doing?” And we thought, “yeah, actually there is, it would be really interesting to see the human rights narrative start to come through in journalism. And to see sort of emerging journalists in whatever form of freelance or otherwise really begin to bring a human rights lens to the work that they’re doing.”

And so we set up a scholarship program for each year for a participant in the program who would undertake a human rights lens to the work that they were doing. And then in the first year we sort of had to quickly find, you know, potential people in there. And I remember you and I having a conversation, and I said, do you have any interest in doing something like this, given the fact that you’ve got a really interesting background in video production and documentary work and so on and so forth, and your eyes just lit up, and you said, sign me up.

Sukanya: Yes. I think I leapt across the table and said, please, yes.

And the funny thing is, Elizabeth, my first day I was sitting in the room at the Munk School, which is this beautiful room, looking over a courtyard, the sun shining in, and there was me, a human rights lawyer in my forties, and around the table were all these very smart, engaged people; one other person in their forties, but the rest of them were in their twenties or their thirties. And they were in health, or law, doctors, journalists, et cetera. And all of them were talking about podcasts. And I had no idea what the relevance of podcasts were, which is ridiculous because they’re so powerful. They’re such a powerful medium.

And here I am today. And it’s really a labour of love because a lot of work goes into a podcast. But I found that it’s such a good way to talk about issues that are important to all of us and to look at the ways that some of the crises we face are so interconnected. But it is on that personal level it’s meaningful to me to be chatting with you, knowing that the genesis of all of this comes from yourself and Maytree, so I’m very grateful. Thank you for that.

Elizabeth: It’s a great full circle. And delighted to be here talking with you.

Sukanya: So as you know, in this podcast, JUST PLANET, we look at how our lives are affected by various decisions made at legislative and policy levels. And we’ve also been looking at how there are so many connections among the various global crises that we face.

And for a long time now, the focus had been on how climate change is going to very seriously affect the vast number of people living in poverty around the world, and to take a situation that is already a negative one and make it even worse. And what’s happened since March, we’re dealing with the immediate impact of the pandemic COVID-19 on people living in poverty.

I know that you and your organization have been involved in the impact that COVID-19 has had on people in Canada and in Toronto where you’re based. I wondered if you could maybe share with us what you observed, and what your responses were, and how you’ve approached what you have identified as issues of concern.

Elizabeth: That’s a big question. And I think a really important one the way that you’ve framed that up in terms of how these large catastrophic events impact people experiencing poverty. And it really is like shining a light through a magnifying glass in terms of seeing how people who are already experiencing inequities and injustices in our society, that this just exacerbates those gaps.

Policy gaps and frays in the social welfare net, those things just become so strained under these circumstances.

And so it’s certainly in the context that COVID has really forced some very bold thinking and responses to that. I look around and I’m heartened by the strong response of civil society in the last six months to what is happening around us, and colleagues in the foundation world, and in the think tank world, and the institutes that are around that are participating in this analysis.

There are so many good players that are bringing forward right ideas, putting pressure on government in the right spaces. We are among very good colleagues in doing that work. So some of the stuff I’m talking about, it’s not just Maytree – it’s us, along with many colleagues.

From the very first instance, I think we tried, turned our attention to one of the areas that we have been doing work on for a number of years now, which is housing. Because as it has almost become trite to say, staying at home is difficult if you don’t have a home.

And so in many ways, the crisis of homelessness became the crisis of everyone. It was something that was impacting everyone. And in some ways the lives of everyone were tied up in how well we were taking care of the most vulnerable – which was, you know, sort of an unfortunate extreme that we have to get to for people to feel connectivity to other people.

But that I think was a catalyst for it. So just bringing that to the fore, and forcing public policy decisions and political decisions around responses to that. I think back to March and April and May during those early months of COVID, and it was the urgency of what’s going to happen to people in Canada.

I know you have an international audience. So in Canada, very quickly, we had something called the CERB, the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit, which was a response to a failed employment insurance system, that was not going to be able to handle the 4 million people that were suddenly going to be out of work the next day, when the economy shut down, when we closed everything except for essential services.

And so once that got announced, which put $500 a week in people’s pockets, we suddenly had a bit of a breather. There was some breathing space, there was $2,000 a month going out to people. But then once that got underway, then you begin to plow through what’s happening around us, and begin to look at how it’s playing out differently for different groups of people.

And that’s where some of our work began to focus. We began to look at whether this $2,000 a month in cities like Toronto or Vancouver actually do it for people who are paying over $2,000 a month in rent. Does that do it for families who are dependent on a single minimum wage income earner? How does that play out differently for people who are receiving welfare or disability supports, and who are also working, are they able to get the fullness of that benefit?

So we began to look at the income security elements of it, of how that was going to play out, but then also, how does that intersect with housing, with rent, and what happens when you don’t have enough money coming in but still have responsibilities on rent.

Sukanya: One of the things I think you mentioned, which is very important, is that Maytree is working with many civil society organizations. Is it safe to say within Toronto, but also across Canada?

Elizabeth: Certainly for the work that we do on public policy that has a federal government lens. There’s others across the country who we come together with, who we will convene and exchange ideas and do that kind of work.

For work that we do on the ground, that tends to be more localized in Toronto because that is where we are. So for example, when we work with groups that are organizing on the ground around tenants’ rights, or around poverty organizing, that will tend to be a more Toronto-based relationship.

Sukanya: I completely understand. And I’m glad that you noted the fact that we have an international audience. We do. And I think that the issues that you’re talking about will resonate.

For example, India, which is another country that I have ties to, my family is there. But I know for example, when COVID-19 hit, and the country went on lockdown, there were, what they call in India, migrant workers, but they’re not migrants who have crossed the border into India. They are people in India who travel to other states within that country for work. And they tend to be, what they call “day-wage earners,” so they earn their wage each day.

When the country went on lockdown, people were stranded because there were no trains, then there was no money to take planes. And at the time there were not state-facilitated busses. And it was an awful sight to see people walking almost 2,000 kilometers or more in some cases – masses, thousands of people walking thousands of kilometers to try to get home.

And it was civil society that stepped in. It was local NGOs that stepped in to provide food and water to people who couldn’t get it because their typical stops – truck stops or gas stations along the way – were closed. There were rations. And so it’s very important on the ground and on the ground also translates up to policy levels.

Those civil society organizations were involved in bringing a case in which the Supreme Court of India directed the national government to send those labourers home.

And similarly I had a guest earlier. We spoke about Syria and I know that civil society groups have been helping people in the refugee camps in and around Syria. So I think that people listening will have an interest in that.

And poverty is an affliction that sadly is worldwide. And I think, often people are surprised that there is poverty in Canada if they’re not from Canada.

So Elizabeth, can you tell us a bit more about what you did directly, or Maytree did directly, with respect to addressing some of these holes in the social welfare system and/or with people who are living in poverty and had no place to shelter effectively?

Elizabeth: I love the example that you gave from India, because I think that civil society organizations that did step in and brought that experience and evidence forward to the court system, to the government, to demand a different response from government is a great example of the necessity of civil society and their role in ensuring the protection of human rights, for example.

I think what we witnessed in Canada, and I think it’s a really important point to make, and we saw it very clearly in the first couple of months, was a tremendous receptivity on the part of government to hear from civil society. The door was open, the door was swung wide open.

Sukanya: And that is huge. I don’t mean to interrupt, but as civil libertarians or “human rights people” I think it’s also very important to give credit to the state when they do the right thing.

Elizabeth: I totally agree. And it’s why I want to make a point about it because I think that we’re very quick to critique. The reality is I think that they were scrambling, this was – the overused word – this was “unprecedented.”

And I think, fortunately, we had a federal government that had a bit of a culture and a network of players that they had worked with around engaging civil societies ideas in their process. And so they tapped into that. And so, you know, there were a number of opportunities to bring ideas forward.

Not all of them got taken up, but the issues that were being brought forward were landing on open ears. In policy strategy, we often think about, you know, windows of opportunity. It was a really significant window in terms of being able to have very open conversations with political actors, with bureaucratic actors, to put ideas on the table to have real time feedback as policies and initiatives were being developed.

If you look at the CERB that I mentioned earlier, the emergency relief benefit that got retailored a few times, it was all happening in real time. And so that’s a really, I think, important part of our learning out of that. At the city level, the city of Toronto – city councillors, the mayor – began very quickly to bring together civil society leaders to say, Okay where are the challenges? What do we need to be attentive to? Where are the opportunities? What do we need to build into our strategy for rebuild when we come out the other end of this? And I think that that too is, at the city level, a really important opportunity to flag what are going to be the key issues and to work with and bring forward to support their work in building out the strategy.

So an example of that was a really hard commitment on the part the city of Toronto, for example, to look seriously at acquisition of buildings, acquisitions of hotels, of vacant motels, so that places could be found for people who were without homes, who were homeless, who were sick from the COVID virus, and to find place for them.

It also began to, quite frankly, lay track to a vision of why can’t we just do this period as a real solution to homelessness. And so that conversation is in play now. And so those are really exciting opportunities. And that came out of, you know, I think it came out of strong leadership at the city level that saw the opportunity, but also that was willing to say, the door is open, help us figure this out.

Sukanya: Absolutely. I mean, that’s hugely important. You identify two things. One was that the city was willing to look at their preexisting policy on acquisition of buildings. What was the issue before, and what is changing, or what are you hoping will change?

Elizabeth: So I’m not expert enough to say what the status was in January. There was some of that happening. We had been engaged in supporting nonprofits and neighborhood land trust to begin purchasing some of the rooming houses that were up on the market and in threat of gentrification – so that very deeply affordable properties throughout the city that have traditionally been available for people who have low-income were in danger. And we all had been seeing a shrinking supply of that stock.

But a more robust, widespread thought around purchases – I think COVID was, in many ways, a catalyst for that, because with the extreme shutdown of hotels, of kinds of buildings, and the threat of some of these buildings becoming distressed assets – created an opportunity for the city to say, these are distressed assets, let’s ensure that they go into an ownership model that will ensure affordability in perpetuity rather than the potential for distressed assets that can be bought up by the REITs, the real estate investment trust that big multinational, you know, financialization of housing type of type of actors.

Sukanya: That the people who are looking for investments like profits, not to provide housing.

Elizabeth: Exactly, the driver is not to ensure affordability and perpetuity. The driver is to ensure a return on investment, which, you know, that’s fair game in a financial world. But where we have housing as a human right, and a need, and people that don’t have access to affordable housing, that has to become the driver.

And so I think it’s a really exciting time right now in the world of housing. And the world is sort of figuring out: How do we model that out? What is the sustainable business model to that? How do we attract capital to make that happen? How do we ensure the operational funds to support the delivery of it in an ongoing way?

If it’s a supportive housing model, those are things where the ideas are now beginning to move really quickly. And I think there’s real potential.

Sukanya: What are you hoping might happen?

Elizabeth: I’m hoping that we will see nonprofits, co-ops, and land trusts, models of ownership that are driven by affordability will be able to attract the capital that’s required to purchase some of the assets that are available in the landscape.

So that we will in the city of Toronto, I’ll use that as an example, we have on any given night in excess of seven or 8,000 people who don’t have a home, so how do we begin to provide the kinds of answers to that. The city is doing tremendous work. They’re piloting modular housing and micro units and all kinds of stuff. And you do need many different prongs to create sustainable solutions. And it makes it healthier as an environment to have a number of different options.

But I think there’s opportunity of potentially distressed assets in this moment; you know, we saw what happened to distressed assets after the global economic crisis in 2009, they got, to your point, gobbled up by investment opportunities. And in many big cities like Toronto, like Vancouver, Sydney, London, New York, this drove up and pressurized the cities around affordability of housing.

And so we see that that drive-up in affordability, or lack of affordability, just plays out in such a devastating way for communities, and individuals who do not have the incomes to enable them to live in that environment.

Sukanya: I couldn’t agree more in terms of the devastating impact. And one of the things that Maytree is known for, and that you also stand for, is approaching social problems from a human rights lens. And did you find that in this work with the city, that it was a novel approach on the part of the city to recognize the human rights impact? Not only after the fact, but also how going forward, incorporating a human rights-consciousness into decision making will avert future potential disasters or devastation?

Elizabeth: We had actually some work done in advance of COVID with the city of Toronto and human rights. The city had passed a ten-year housing plan at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020. And we had worked with the city with a whole network of civil society actors on housing and human rights and the city.

The city’s ten-year plan takes a human rights approach to housing. They recognize housing as a human right. And the plan is guided by that.

That created a starting place that drove the conversation. And so the deputy mayor responsible for housing in the city of Toronto, Ana Bailão, was out in front. She was convening the housing advisory group, and she was championing it that this will be a human rights approach what we’re going to do next. That created the set of values that would drive the decision-making.

Now, having said that, we’re still at the early stages of what does it mean to do it, to have a human rights approach. And so in all of the urgency of convening, and finding solutions, and an endless stream of Zoom calls that happened in March, April, May, and June, one of the really fundamental principles of a human rights approach, which is to engage people with living experience in the process, that fell by the wayside. Because it was really hard to convene people with experience of homelessness and poverty on Zoom calls. And to reach out there, the easy reach-outs are to those in positions like myself, very conveniently and easy.

We actually worked with one of our fellows who is an expert in lived experience and human rights approaches, Emily Paradis, and she, and one of my colleagues at Maytree, went out and did a consultation with people with lived experience who had been engaged in city processes before COVID. They put out a report recently, and it was really disappointing because, as much as I think our colleagues at the city have full intention of doing this well, when it gets hard, it falls by the wayside.

To us as well, you know, we had to stop, and go out, and bring people’s lived experience into our conversation to make sure we’re not missing the perspectives, the experience, and the expertise that should be guiding our work on this.

And some of the responses from people in the conversations that were held were deep disappointment. They had felt that perhaps their previous engagement had been tokenistic because when stuff really started to matter, they weren’t sure. Nobody called them. Nobody called to see if they were still alive.

So it’s hard work. It’s not easy, and it takes extra effort. But that’s part of what’s required.

Sukanya: Well, I think that’s actually one strategy that Maytree has employed that I’ve always thought that has been so important. What have you learned from having people with lived experience at the table in your own work?

Elizabeth: We’ve learned a lot. What we learned first and foremost is what is the lived experience, what does it feel like? How does the process play out for them? And so if you think about processes around applying for welfare or applying for disability, when you begin to understand what each step involves, what’s required, how difficult it is, what it costs how taxing it is, what is the stress that is felt, the felt experience, the felt attack on dignity in having to do certain things or having to, you know, that using a food bank is simply an essential part of survival month-to-month on the amount that one might receive on welfare or disability support.

And so I think getting into the human experience of it, and recognizing the fact that the policies, the procedures, the benefits that we have defined, how they get distributed, how they get delivered, impacts on the felt dignity of the individual. And at the end of the day, human rights are about delivering dignity and ensuring that that dignity is protected by policy, by law, by the structures that we have around it. And so I think getting to dignity is about hearing from someone personally.

Sukanya: You mentioned that there was that disconnect because people who are homeless weren’t able to easily access the internet. And so they weren’t included for logistical reasons in some of the discussions that were happening. But was that disconnect, reconnected as it were, by your being on the ground with your colleagues?

Elizabeth: I believe some of it was and we’ve, I mean, we’ve only, this is fresh, fresh off the press, so to speak, the report went into the city last week. I think that reconnection will happen. I believe we have a very dedicated team at the city, that it does want to see this happen. And I think that one of our roles is to where we can be helpful in amplifying voices in other places – that we will try to do that and try to do that as effectively as possible.

Sukanya: Is that report available publicly?

Elizabeth: It’s on our website.

Sukanya: Okay, great. So we’ll put a link up to that. And I have a law student who’s working in Toronto at one of the NGOs that works with homeless people and was one of many people who were quite excited that you and I were going to be speaking today. And she sent me an email and said that some of the issues that homeless people she’s worked with have had is that many of the policies targeted traditional nuclear family models, which don’t always apply to people living in homelessness because their families may not be recognized as families. Have you come across that particular issue or similar issues where people with lived experience have said, that all sounds good, but it doesn’t really work and here’s what we need.

Elizabeth: I haven’t heard myself the comment on the nuclear family model, although that makes complete sense to me by what we do here and from some of the work that I’ve been involved in around youth homelessness. So much of youth homelessness is hidden, it’s couch surfing, it’s occurring in places where we don’t see it. There is one or two youth shelters that there’s sort of an apparent experience that’s there, but it’s much deeper. And I think the same is very true of women and women who are victims of violence. I think that their experience is highly hidden.

In fact, much of the homeless work that gets sort of primacy in some of the policy discussions is focused on chronic homeless, which is good, but it’s predominantly male. It will be predominantly with certain circumstances around it. And that absolutely needs attention, but it’s the diversity of experiences that we lose when we focus on what is visible, on what shelters have been set up to handle, what services have been organized around, and what is sort of the go-to understanding of the experience.

Because what we know from all kinds of people who are in particular positions of vulnerability is that their experiences are highly diverse. And it’s all the intersectionalities that we’re becoming much more familiar with and conversant about. And those intersectionalities make massive differences in how people experience the policies, the services, all of that, and the experience of homelessness in particular.

And so whether that is around sexual identity, whether that’s around gender, race, indigeneity, all of these factors will play out very differently. And Indigenous homeless is another thing even there. How Indigenous communities define homeless will be different and distinct, and all of that needs to be part of the thought around solutions.

Sukanya: Well, absolutely. And I’m glad that you gave some examples of intersectionality, but I know that another intersectionality that you have focused on is disability. Is that something you’d like to talk about?

Elizabeth: Sure. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on this by any means, but we have focused on issues of disability, particularly around the income security system.

And part of that was an early set of ideas that we wanted to work on because the Ontario government was looking potentially at changing the definition of disability and aligning it with the federal government’s programs.

And so we began to dig into that to say, well, wait a second. What will happen if we align that definition? Who will get left behind, what will be the net result of that shift in definition? And, you know, it’s always thinking about who’s going to get left behind. Because whenever policies begin to circumscribe the intended group differently, you know someone is being left behind. So you have to look at that very carefully.

But then as we’re getting into COVID, the impact on people with disabilities was so remarkably, again, more exacerbated because people with disabilities will have greater vulnerabilities. They will have comorbidities perhaps in the event that they are exposed to COVID. And so their quality of health becomes a much heightened, much more heightened issue and all the extra steps in order to protect themselves, health wise, are expensive. And we know that the experience of poverty as it relates to the community of people who experienced disabilities, be they mental or physical disabilities, is much more acute. And so there’s pressure on that, and we didn’t see a quick response from the government in providing support to those communities.

The federal support, I think, is still in the cheque-cutting phase. They still haven’t quite got money out the door, I don’t think. There was some smaller amounts distributed in Ontario, but really the intensified experience and the greater need that simply was a result of the staying at home protocols that just made everything much more difficult.

Sukanya: I remember reading an op-ed that you wrote, and I know you sometimes write op-eds with Alan Broadbent who is one of the founders of Maytree, and you sometimes write them alone. So I can’t remember which what this was, but in March, I believe it was when the government in Canada at least was telling people to stay home and shelter in place. And the city of Toronto had also called for this.

You were very quick, one of the first, if not the first to write an op-ed on rent, eviction freezes, rent and evictions, and freezing both. Can you tell us a bit about that, how you came to do that, what you were asking for, and if it’s helped?

Elizabeth: I think it was just, again, looking at the most urgent issues. And so ensuring that people stay in place is about ensuring that there are no evictions.

Now, fortunately, very quickly, the provincial governments across the country came in with bans on evictions. But, you know, I never draw a straight line between anything that we have said or done and what happens in government. But I think that the chorus of civil society actors, it was just a no-brainer, “You cannot be evicting people at this moment” landed fairly squarely. And hopefully that was already in the minds of government as the right thing to do.

Where we’re getting very anxious right now, and the work continues, is that the moratorium on evictions will be lifted in Ontario soon. And that’s coming pretty much at the same time that we see the end of the emergency relief benefit.

Now the federal government is talking about the next iteration of support that will be available, but it’s not clear at this point what that will be. And it’s not clear at the provincial level what they will do about evictions. And it’s not clear because in Ontario we’ve just passed legislation that allows for a fast track to eviction If someone has signed a repayment agreement and reneges on that repayment agreement.

So there are things that are very unclear and so there’s concern. And so some of our work now is turning toward, you know, developing ideas around, What are some of the solutions for this one? Can the provincial government contemplate to ensure that people are not evicted, that we will not see people thrown out of their homes and adding to a homeless population, and finding ways that do this fairly?

In all cases, you really want to make sure that we’re finding solutions that are not going to penalize the landlord but that will also not evict the tenant.

And so what are the opportunities for an arrears-forgiveness program or an arrears fund where perhaps the government takes on the debt of the arrears? And then the person is to pay back to government on a no interest longer-term repayment, but not beholden to the individual landlord, which all of the direction relationship that can end up in a court where the landlord can win an eviction – so shifting the power dynamics of that a little bit, and then also having a bit of forgiveness in there, given the circumstance of COVID.

And if there’s repayment with perhaps no interest and a longer-term repayment plan, because we are still uncertain what the labour market is going to look like, who’s going back to work and when and for how long – there’s so many unanswered questions – that I think we really need to have some generosity built into the systems, especially ones that have such extreme consequences.

So that’s some of the work that we’re focused on right now and really trying to figure out what some of those options might be that don’t penalize landlords entirely, but also, at the most important, protect the tenant.

Sukanya: And I think people are extremely worried about that, not just in Toronto, but across the country. And I think even around the world. I mean, just this morning, there was an article in our national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. It was focused on overcrowding in areas of Mexico City that are more poverty stricken and how the virus is spreading, but it also alludes to the fact that there are many other issues involved and rent of course is one of those. And this idea of looking to solutions, I think, is so important. And being creative. I’m encouraged by hearing you raise this idea of an arrears fund and forgiveness.

So bringing the conversation around now, one of the things that you’ve always spoken to me about – our first conversation was about human rights and building a culture of human rights – can you talk a little bit about that because it’s one thing to hear that and it’s another thing to really think about what that means and looks like.

Elizabeth: Sure. It’s also some of the work that we’re beginning to do now. And building a human rights culture, you’re right, it sounds very abstract. And what does that actually look like on the ground?

When I think of culture, I think of a sort of organizing principle: That there are rules of a culture; there are normative behaviours that are acceptable in a culture; there are values that are implied in a culture; and there are behaviours that are expected in a culture. And so when I go to the rules of a culture, and if it’s a human rights culture in a city or in a country, I think about legislative frameworks.

I think about the fact that we have rights to housing as legislation in Canada – now it is part of that rule. And that rule is going to drive certain structures and mechanisms within government that will force us to think about that when we make decisions around how to spend money, and around how to get in and unpack systemic barriers and systemic discrimination within those systems.

But then it also begins to drive the culture of how people are behaving around it, what questions that they ask, of who do they invite to the table, or what are the considerations that we make. And I think that that is the slower moving part, but it also is about driving people, understanding what their rights are, and having the ability to claim their rights, and to bring that forward and to be participants in the decisions that will impact their lives. And that’s creating the conditions for them to be able to engage in that.

We’ve begun to do some work at Maytree to scope: But what would it look like? What would it look like if Toronto was a human rights city?

Now it’s a loaded term. “Human rights cities,” and I’m putting up quotation marks, is a term that has been used in a few different places around the world. And it describes different things. I would say it’s not – I don’t think we have an ISO 9,000 for human rights city what it takes to be that. I think some places, you know, there’s some cities in the United States that have sanctuary cities, and they would consider themselves a human rights city because of that. There are cities like Barcelona that have done a lot on human rights, and housing, and recognizing housing as a human right.

Seoul, Korea, has a whole infrastructure around human rights and protecting and mechanisms to advance that. In Canada, Montreal has declared itself. Toronto now has said we have housing as a human right.

But I think we need to push this up further because of what we’re thinking about, and this is our lens in particular, because we’re concerned about poverty and dignity. So it’s social and economic rights. How do we get that? How do we get social and economic rights up into the mechanisms and into the DNA of our public institutions, of our governments, of our decision-making?

I think that we have a fairly good sensibility around civil and political rights.

I wouldn’t say that we’d score an “A”on the report card, not by a long stretch. And certainly we know that the violation of the civil and political rights of many communities, in Canada, as elsewhere in the world have been woefully not respected, violated. And we just look at what’s happening around us with the Black Lives Matter movement and around Indigenous rights in this country, and we know that that is so palpable here, that there’s so much that needs to happen there.

But going the step further and looking also at social and economic rights, and those communities will again be those who are going to be graded most impacted. How do we get that up into the culture of how we think about the city? And then what is the city’s responsibility?

We know that cities are delivering many of the services and supports, and they’re the closest to the ground in terms of connecting with people. And we need to get cities to begin to live those values of human rights, to deliver, and progressively realize social and economic rights, to continue moving the marker forward to continually hold themselves to account on equality rights, to continue to hold themselves to account.

So there’s an accountability piece that needs to be part of that. There is a way in which we are ensuring that the DNA of these organizations and institutions are able to hear from communities who are impacted, whose rights are being violated. Are they able to bring those claims forward? Are we digging into the systemic issues that we are hearing about?

I think one of the inspiring things for me as I look around at our world in 2020, in August of 2020, which is when we’re speaking today, is that I have never heard such popular discourse around systemic racism.

Yes, we have spoken about it at this level. But I’m not sure everybody knows what they’re saying, to be quite frank, but the fact that we are engaging with that on its face and setting that as the agenda that we need to get into that. And that’s the bar that we have to address, that to me is building up toward what is a human rights community and a culture.

Sukanya: That’s an excellent answer because you’ve comprehensively addressed what needs to change. And I think, if I had to pull one kernel out of it, what you said that I think explains everything, it’s how to get that DNA of human rights consciousness and human rights-informed decision-making and lived-experienced decision-making into government legislative and policy decisions.

I think that is huge. The second thing I think is so huge is what you just said about how it’s unprecedented to see the level of discussion for the first time around what systemic racism is and what it means. And obviously this is so important because in Canada we have such a serious problem with anti-black racism, and anti-Indigenous racism, and the racism experienced by people of colour. And, of course, the intersectionalities that you’ve described, including disability.

But what I also find is that we can hear people having conversations and using terms like “human rights,” but they don’t necessarily share the same definition about what they’re talking about. And so I think that the work that you’re doing in that regard, like the work that you’re doing with journalism fellowships, and the work that you’re doing with the newsletters and podcasting, is very important. Because not only are you reaching out to decision-makers, but you’re also reaching out to individuals, voters, citizens, and constituencies – so I think, by explaining these terms and having these discussions, that allows people to hear what different definitions might be out there and then to adopt one. Or at least to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of defining what we mean before we get into the substance of a discussion.

The other thing I found that was quite unique about Maytree, at least in my experience in my previous jobs working with Maytree, and knowing about you, and knowing about other organizations, is that you have been very focused on building from the ground up in terms of strengthening civil society. Which in a way is where we started today. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what it means to you, to strengthen civil society? Why is that important to you?

Elizabeth: You’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s hugely important to us. And it’s because civil society, the nonprofit sector, the charitable sector, the whatever term you want to use, the community sector, they are in many ways, maybe steward is the wrong word, but they are the frontline of connecting with communities.

And their ability to deliver services, support to work with communities, to develop those communities, is critical. They are at the grassroots, they are part of building community, and some do it better than others. And what’s important is that they are also able to reflect the communities that they serve. That they are including being inclusive in terms of their own governance of communities that they serve. And so the strength of those organizations really becomes part and parcel with the strength of communities.

They also provide a front-row seat. They have a unique expertise on what’s happening in communities. And so for that reason, they are a hugely valuable partner to government in helping government understand and to deliver that message of what’s happening at the front lines and being able to advocate with and for the communities that they work with.

And so one of the other things that we do, because we, I mean we’re a small foundation, so we have to always try to out-perform our investments, so for that reason we do look at public policy as an important tool, because it is a huge lever for change. That’s an important strategy for us to look at. And it’s part of shaping how the country works.

But we firmly believe that civil society has a role to play in the world of public policy. That they should be part of the process, that they bring forward a really critical lens and expertise from the front lines.

And so we run something called the Maytree Policy School where we pulled together a cohort each year of about 20 leaders from the not-for-profit sector who are already doing policy by default off the side of their desk. But we bring them together over a six-month period and bring together a faculty of experts on the public policy process, both for the political side and the bureaucratic side. And we really work together with their expertise from the frontline, with the expertise of the faculty, and have that exchange of building sharper strategies to have their voices, their ideas, brought forward, and to help inform really good public policy.

Because we believe that good public policy comes from not a handful of people locked up in an office, but really where there’s an ability to hear from the experience of communities, how things play out to bring in the lived-experience. And I think community, you know, the civil society, is a vehicle for bringing in lived experience. So all of that enriches the ideas and ultimately the solutions that get put forward.

Sukanya: That’s so important, that’s excellent. So when you talked about cities, that’s so huge. And I’m also very interested in it because, even with this podcast, Season One is on COVID-19, and Season Two I’m planning for it to be on cities.

And I know you’re very Canada-focused. But you mentioned Barcelona, for example, and other international cities. Will you be in some way exchanging knowledge and best practices, et cetera, with other cities? Like New York, or Barcelona, or anywhere else outside this country?

Elizabeth: Perhaps down the road. Our first step is in putting together, in articulating, a framework of what a human rights city should be, what it means, what it should look like, what the constituent elements are. And we’ll begin from there. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves by saying that we’re going to jump onto the international stage. And I think we will grow into the conversations that we’re able to have based on what we’re learning, what we see from the Canadian context.

Certainly, we’re looking at other jurisdictions so that we can learn. And then I think we will step by step see where that takes us in terms of evolving the concepts, and what that means to us as a foundation for how we move this idea forward. I would love to have conversations internationally. I think that would be helpful.

Sukanya: Well, yes, especially since you gave those examples of sanctuary cities, which is really when I started to think about this, when that concept first became more widely-used over the last decade or so with all the issues facing migrants and asylum seekers, et cetera.

Elizabeth, on that point about definitions, and civil society, and even charities, I have had conversations with people when we talk about poverty. I’ve had these conversations in Canada and I’ve had them elsewhere. And sometimes, well, not sometimes, often, one may hear a response that, you know, that “pull up your bootstraps” response. That poverty is the result of people not making good decisions. Or if they get any money, they blow it. What’s your approach to poverty?

Elizabeth: I would say the extreme opposite of that.

Sukanya: I find that a cruel approach by the way, and I know, I’m sure you do, too. But anyway, tell us what your approach is.

Elizabeth: Well, I think, it’s how we understand poverty and people’s experiences of it. And so it was actually, I think, at an early meeting with you Sukanya, when you used the term, you said, “we create poverty,” and that was, I think, a really useful verb to use in relation to poverty. Because it is created, and it’s created by systems. And so it’s the decisions that we, as a society, are making about how we support people’s experiences.

So I look at who is suffering largely from poverty, and it’s communities, racialized communities. And that stems back into all kinds of experiences that they go through. It’s about the labour market that’s available to them, and how they’re treated by that labour market. It is the educational system, and how it treats children as young in age as five and six, and how they are treated by that system because of the colour of their skin.

It’s a whole series of things that compound and create stresses, and create a limitation of options that continue to narrow for people as they go through the course of their life.

And we have these decisions being made at a macro level. The shape of our labour market is a series of macroeconomic decisions about what companies must or mustn’t do or don’t have to do around the conditions of precarity that people are working with and the stress that that brings to them.

It’s the “macro decisions” around allowing housing to be so intensely financialized so that it becomes unaffordable and people are paying more than 50% of their net income on rent, and don’t have enough left over for food. So it’s these large scale decisions and policies that we make that create often a very impossible context in which to thrive as individuals and for people to be the best that they can be and to explore that.

It’s a lack of a mental health support system, a mental health system, that it is providing the kinds of supports that allow people to live a life of dignity, to have access to the kinds of supports, whether it’s supportive housing, or it’s medication, or it’s health, it’s access to doctors or counsellors.

All of these things together begin to form the experience of poverty.

So is it someone’s unwillingness to work an extra hour? Is it making a bad decision one day that has rendered the rest of their life lesser? No! It’s how our systems are treating people, the criminal justice system, education system, health system. There’s a conflict, and we know that it impacts certain groups differently. And so we know that it is systemic and that is the stuff that we need to get right up into, that is the work that’s in front of us.

Sukanya: Well, thank you so much, Elizabeth. That’s so important. And what you just mentioned about, essentially, what is the criminalization of poverty, and the criminalization of race, and the preexisting structures, it’s so important. I think the work that you’re doing as a foundation, and the work that you’re doing in collaboration with other civil society groups, and people with lived experience, it’s crucial.

And it is focused on right now and going forward. But it also recognizes the structures that have been a long time in the making and are difficult to dismantle. But the thing about COVID-19, it has urgently shown us what the harms of some of these structures are, and that policy decisions, the decisions that we make every day, either reinforce a negative existence, or they can move us closer to a more egalitarian and human rights-oriented society, which at the end of the day means what you said before, which is just respecting the dignity of every human being.

Elizabeth, you have to jump in and say something else because I totally went off on a tangent.

Elizabeth: I can’t. It was so well said.

Sukanya: At the end, I realized, Oh my God, I’m sounding “sermon-y.” I get into that zone.

Elizabeth: It’s good. It’s good.

Sukanya: Elizabeth, I’m so grateful to you for making time in your very busy schedule.

Elizabeth: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Sukanya: We’ll put up links. But if people want to find out more about Maytree or the issues that we’ve been talking about today, where can they go to do that?

Elizabeth: They can go to our website, which is, or follow us on Twitter.

Sukanya: You’ve been such a great guest Elizabeth and so full of information on all of these issues. I hope you’ll come back for a future show down the road.

Elizabeth: My pleasure.

Sukanya: Thank you so much.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Take care.

Sukanya: You too.

That’s our show today. Thank you for joining us. Please hit subscribe if you like what you heard today, or give us a like, or a rating, and join us next week, where we talk about the ongoing detention of two Canadians in China. Until next week, all the best.


Cities and communities, Housing and homelessness, Human rights, Poverty


Around the world cities are standing up to local and national governments, demanding rights on asylum, climate change, income equality, disability rights and housing. Maytree president Elizabeth McIsaac spoke to Sukanya Pillay on the Just Planet podcast.