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Opinion

When the rubber hits the road

Published on 21/12/2015

What we learned from testing a rights framework in Windsor and Hamilton

At Maytree, we see human rights as a particularly effective tool to eliminate poverty in Canada. To help us develop our rights-based approach, we have spent time engaging in conversations about how these rights are useful in anti-poverty work with those in academia, government, policy, NGOs, think tanks and the business community. We have also been intentional about engaging further with individuals with lived experience of poverty, as well as those who are on the front lines of working with marginalized populations.

We want to know: does our approach make sense to those who are living this reality? How do we connect with the important work that people are already doing? And, how can we frame issues of poverty elimination through a realization of human rights?

With these questions in mind, we approached our long-time partners at Tamarack: An Institute for Community Engagement to put us in contact with some local anti-poverty groups. With their assistance, we were able to connect with the Vibrant Community roundtables in Windsor and Hamilton to pilot workshops which would explore questions of rights and poverty reduction, with a particular focus on economic and social rights.

In both Windsor and Hamilton, participants offered insightful feedback that culminated in three main findings. First, people with lived experience of poverty, and those on the front lines of anti-poverty work, intuitively understand that rights matter. Participants did not question whether using such a framework was too political or complicated. They saw the value of rights as a way to make the conversation about the inherent dignity of all human beings real.

This understanding of the usefulness of a rights lens was evident in an exercise we did where participants looked at the elements of a rights approach and applied it to a program or approach in their own community. In Windsor, we looked at the Housing First model adopted by service providers. We found that even though an explicit rights approach was not evident, this program is based on the idea that people with lived experiences of poverty are the experts in knowing what they need, and that there are obligations that governments and services providers have to those living in precarious housing situations. Furthermore, Housing First is guided by the obligations that we all have to those in our community who lack permanent housing. These assumptions are compatible with a rights-based approach.

The second finding from the workshops was that rights can be complicated and messy. Participants discussed how challenging it is for those living in poverty to realize their rights. While we can talk about individuals as rights holders in the abstract, questions abound as to how rights are actualized in peoples’ daily lives. We looked at examples of rights in Canada and abroad, including the Homelessness Charter in Calgary, the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities in Montreal, and the Madison, Wisconsin right-to-housing bill. We found that while there are many good ideas out there about the importance of ensuring that people’s rights are respected, the challenge is how to ensure they are realized. Part of this is figuring out ways to hold governments accountable. In both cities, we saw lively discussions about the value – and potential challenges – of poverty reduction strategies at the provincial and city level, and the lack of attention to rights in these documents so far.

Third, we learned that there needs to be a shift in the narrative on rights; a collective recognition that all Canadians are rights-holders. Participants expressed support for the idea that rights are indeed about legal obligations, but they are also about the relationships between citizens. Furthermore, the voices of those with lived experience of poverty need to be central in any poverty reduction movement.

In 2016, we look forward to continuing the conversation about social and economic rights in communities and amongst citizens. It is only by enhancing our collective understanding of poverty as a rights-based issue that we can seize the opportunities for systemic change in the social, political and legal realms and realize the foundational rights that are our birthright as human beings.

Topic(s)

Human rights, Poverty

Summary

Testing how to develop our rights-based approach to ending poverty.