Publications, opinions, and speeches


Challenges to leadership in Canadian society, and how economic and social rights can help

Published on 05/12/2019

These comments were delivered at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University on November 15, 2019.

I feel like I am at home speaking with a group of friends. A group full of policy people—the mandarins, those in the thick of departmental multi-year planning processes, those advocating for and researching the “best” solutions to complex policy issues, and the future of policy in Canada.

And because I am speaking with a group of policy people, I know you’ll empathize with some of the issues I am grappling with.

Many of us feel anxious about the fractures that we see in our society. Rising populist rhetoric, increasing distrust of public institutions and mainstream media, and crumbling public infrastructure are some of the general trends that are fraying our social fabric. These trends underpin many of the complex political, economic, and social challenges ahead of us.

I will delve deeper into some of these challenges and the work that Maytree undertakes to try to address them. But first, it’s important to recognize that this feeling of “I’m at home” is a fleeting idea for the 235,000 Canadians who are homeless, and the over 1.7 million households living in unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable housing.

The rising cost of housing has become a default retirement plan for some, and for others, has made the idea of finding affordable rental housing—let alone ownership—unimaginable.

Those who find themselves at the fringes of Canada’s housing system may also find themselves at the margins of our labour market. Although the changing nature of the labour market doesn’t necessarily mean that the robots are coming after us, it does mean that the continued impacts of automation and technological change will be felt differently depending on what you do. Those in increasingly non-standard or precarious work continue to face significant risks to their livelihood, while others may find that automation simply continues to change, and not eliminate, their jobs.

The economy continues to grow—for some not fast enough, for most, not equitably enough.

And though our politicians will tout economic achievements—the number of new jobs added in the economy, industrial investment in our economy—a closer look at the data demonstrates that there has not been a meaningful increase in median employment income for years. Further, 13 per cent of Canadians, or 3.7 million people, live below the low-income measure. One in ten Canadians can’t afford their prescription medications. Social assistance caseloads are not decreasing across provinces and territories.

Taken together, this is an indictment of the state of the archaic and inadequate nature of our income security policies. Our social safety net is frayed, and people are falling through the cracks.

While such social policy problems may have existed before, they are capturing the attention of not only policy-makers, but the public writ large, because an increasing number of people feel like they are being left behind. Disenfranchised.

And though we can constantly debate whether the evidence supports these sentiments, or whether social media is being manipulated to further sow discord in our society, these feelings of resentment are revealing themselves in the populist, post-truth politics that we see sprouting up today.

We often find ourselves thinking of reactive policy proposals that try to stem the anger amongst communities left behind, while trying to protect the civil and political rights of those who are being vilified in the process.

The problems may have developed, however, not because the world has changed faster than our policies. But because we did not work to progressively realize economic and social rights.

Economic and social rights are those human rights that relate to our ability to live in dignity and participate fully in our society. They include rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, health care and education.

We know that everyone—regardless of how much income they have—has the right to vote. Just as simply, for example, people should have the right to safe, secure, and affordable housing.

This is where I pause for a gasp from policy audiences—people often believe that the idea of economic and social rights runs antithetical to good public policy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Economic and social rights provide us with the framework for policy ideas that we need to respond to the complex policy issues we are facing.

The challenge to public policy leadership in Canada today is to re-imagine what dignities all Canadians should be afforded; to think about how we crystallize and communicate the ideals of the country that we want to live in, and how we will progressively—through fiscal, social, health and other policy areas—get there.

The articulation of economic and social rights does not mean that policies are made by fiat. Economic and social rights necessitate “progressive realization”, which means that these rights will be realized over time, within the maximum resources available to government.

The first step is in articulating what dignities we think Canadians should be afforded. How governments move towards achieving this goal will depend on the mandates upon which Canadians elect them.

A rights-based approach to policy-making puts people at heart of policy-making, prioritizes those in greatest need, includes lived expertise throughout the policy-making process, and includes targets and accountability measures so that we know where we want to go, and how to remedy policies if we are not achieving our goals.

It is unclear to me how this can be seen as running counter to good public policy development.

Earlier this year, the federal government recognized the fundamental human right to housing in the National Housing Strategy Act, 2019. This is the first time that economic and social rights have been enshrined in legislation. We—the collective “we”—now have to take on the hard work of ensuring that the governance and accountability mechanisms are established, that people with lived experience are part of the process moving forward, and, that the government’s housing policies progressively move to realize this right. It’s an opportunity to meaningfully repair and modernize some of the social systems that people need to live a life with dignity.

At Maytree, we think that the most enduring way to respond to poverty is to safeguard economic and social rights. Through our work, we have supported the work of community advocates and organizers, people with lived experience, political leadership, and government officials—across all levels of government—on the importance of prioritizing the dignity of people in policy decisions. We undertake policy and research work to identify how best to do this.

Because I am speaking with a room full of policy people, I know that it’s not the problems that give us the most anxiety; it’s thinking about how we can develop the most effective policy solutions to those problems. How we communicate the complex, simply. How we reconcile the trade-offs inherent in every policy decision.

These are not easy things to take on.

By centering economic and social rights at the heart of policy-making, public policy leaders might have the northstar they are looking for when they are conceptualizing, developing, and implementing public policy.

It might not make things easy. But it will provide the clarity we need.


Evidence-based policy, Human rights


These comments were delivered at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University.