Publications, opinions, and speeches


Role of municipalities in protecting economic, social and cultural rights

Published on 22/02/2016

Oral presentation on February 22, 2016 at Canada’s review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Good morning committee members, delegates and members of civil society organizations. My name is Elizabeth McIsaac and I’m the president of Maytree, a private charitable foundation based in Toronto, Canada.

At Maytree, we are focused on advancing systemic solutions to poverty. In our view, the protection of economic, social and cultural rights should be embraced by municipalities and be embedded in all poverty reduction strategies.

This Committee has highlighted that the obligation to protect and secure these rights applies to all levels of government, including municipalities.

While there are examples of cities in Canada that have adopted charters of rights or strategies for the implementation of rights, most have not. In fact, municipalities often have little or no knowledge of their responsibilities and are not held accountable to their Covenant obligations.

While municipalities have been delegated important responsibilities related to these rights, most lack the fiscal capacity to meet their obligations. Municipal governments are generally barred from levying income and sales taxes, and have a high reliance on property tax and development charges. In fact, municipal revenues have grown at a very slow pace in recent decades.

Right now in Canada, there is renewed commitment on the part of the federal government to invest in the necessary physical infrastructure of cities and other communities. As large transit and housing investments begin to unfold, it is a key opportunity to include funding provisions that further the protection of economic and social rights.

At the same time, many municipalities in Canada are moving forward with anti-poverty strategies, providing an opportune moment to strengthen these efforts by framing them with the language, goals and elements of a human rights approach.

In past reviews of Canada, this Committee has focused on ensuring that provinces and territories are made aware of their obligations under the Covenant.

Of equal importance is that measures are adopted to ensure that these rights are fully protected in municipal law and policy and that municipalities have the fiscal capacity to fulfill their obligations.

To this end, we submit the following recommendations:

  1. Public policy, budgets and poverty strategies at federal, provincial and municipal levels should be based on the Covenant and other relevant human rights instruments and approaches.
  2. Canada should ensure that provinces and municipalities have adequate financial and other resources to respond to needs at the local level.
  3. To harness the maximum available resources at the local level, provincial governments should review existing municipal Acts and implement enabling legislation to strengthen the capacity of municipalities to generate revenue, particularly large revenue instruments like sales and income taxes.
  4. Canada should encourage municipalities to adopt charters with explicit guarantees of Covenant rights and the requisite mechanisms to ensure accountability.

We hope that your review of and recommendations to Canada will consider the role that municipalities can and need to play in protecting the economic, social and cultural rights of all residents.


Cities and communities, Human rights, Poverty


Oral presentation on February 22, 2016 at Canada’s review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.