Publications, opinions, and speeches


Why we need to talk about human rights in our work on poverty

Published on 10/12/2021

Seven years ago, when Maytree started our work on human rights and poverty, we had an idea and a lot to learn.

It was humbling, speaking to experts in human rights and to advocates in the community who have been working in the field for decades. We learned about international human rights norms, what they looked like in practice around the world, where Canada was making progress, and where we were failing. Because we saw a lot of potential in using a human rights approach to poverty here in Canada, we committed to pursuing this work and figuring out how we could be of service.

We started talking to others, our partners in government, in the community, and in policy circles, about taking a human rights approach to poverty. We were met with a resounding, “huh?”

This was probably due in part to a lack of familiarity with economic and social rights. Here in Canada, we are used to talking about human rights in a particular way, one that centres around equality or non-discrimination, and also one dominated by civil and political rights. The idea that each person has the inherent right to a life with dignity – that is, to an adequate standard of living, to health care and education, to healthy food and decent work – and that the government has the duty to be proactive in protecting and fulfilling these rights, did not fit into our usual narrative.

The pushback was also partly due to a confusion about what this meant, in practice. How do we “do” economic and social rights?

But we also saw sparks of excitement. Many of us knew then, as we know now, that “the way we’ve always done things” was not working. Those ways are not only not solving poverty, they are creating it. Our systems trap people in lives where dignity is out of reach. We needed different ways of thinking and doing – ones that put people firmly in the centre. Together with our allies, we pressed on.

Fast forward a handful of years and our conversations sound a little different these days. More and more, we are hearing the language of human rights around us. In particular, discussions about the human right to housing have come a long way. Decades of work by housing advocates came to fruition in the National Housing Strategy Act, 2019 (NHSA), which acknowledges the human right to housing.

The NHSA accelerated and strengthened acceptance of the idea of housing as a human right. It is now enshrined in Canadian law, and should guide actions from all levels of government in tackling the affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

But while the conversation about having rights has changed somewhat, the discussion of how we “do” rights has not come as far. Our leaders are getting more comfortable with the language of human rights, but are still grappling with what they really mean and how to implement them. Often, human rights are seen in the abstract; but human rights principles can and must be translated into practice. This will come with time, and with continued hard work and diligence.

Still, the NHSA is a tangible marker of progress and an illustration of one reason why the human rights approach remains important: it leads us to solutions that are protected by law.

A human rights approach does something else too. It focuses us on a shared vision of human dignity. It empowers each of us to call upon our governments to actively change and build the systems we need to protect our human dignity. And it reminds us that why and how we do this work is meaningful. Until every person in this wealthy nation can live a dignified life, can we really say that we live in a just society?

As Nelson Mandela put it, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

On International Human Rights Day, and as we head into year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reflecting on how we continue to be of service. I won’t pretend to know the path ahead of us, but I do know that our work must begin and end with people. By listening to people who are experiencing poverty and being attentive to where they will lead us, we will make progress.


Human rights, Poverty


When we started our work on human rights and poverty, we had an idea and a lot to learn. Maytree’s president Elizabeth McIsaac reflects on progress and why we must continue this work.