With the human right to housing, we only get one chance to pour the foundation
As a nation, we are in the midst of creating the institutions that should help us fulfill the human right to housing. The decisions that we make, now, about those institutions, will determine if and how we actually implement the human right to housing in Canada.
Last time in this space, the Maytree Opinion discussed how and why we need to re-imagine social assistance, putting the human right to an adequate standard of living at its core. It alluded to the hard work that would need to follow, to build systems based on human rights principles. Because systems and their institutions matter. Their presence, design and implementation matter. Without them, we risk making human rights an abstract ideal, rather than a practical reality.
In 2019, after decades of advocacy, Canada legally recognized the human right to housing in the National Housing Strategy Act. Now, the hard work of building the systems to deliver on this promise is underway. In particular, the legislation sets out the parameters for a National Housing Council, which will advise the government on how to advance the progressive realization of the human right to housing, and how to tackle systemic violations of this human right. The Council will work alongside the Federal Housing Advocate, which is also outlined in the Act. The Advocate can request that the Council appoint Review Panels to hold hearings and make findings on systemic issues in housing. These panels will be composed of Council members. Together, these institutions will provide accountability and remedy, which are both integral to a human rights approach.
This is important because, to date, Canadian courts have been reluctant to adjudicate the human right to housing. The Council and Advocate will provide a much needed complement to the courts, and offer an alternative route to seek access to justice on housing, especially at the systemic level. For example, the Council could take on the task of tracking the way that federal housing funds are being spent. It might ask: Who benefits from the spending, and is anyone being left behind? Are housing outcomes improving? How could the government adjust its spending and policies to ensure equitable outcomes?
With the National Housing Strategy Act, the government explicitly commits to realizing the human right to housing, as defined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It follows then, that the legislation requires that the Council include members with human rights expertise – that is, expertise in relevant international human rights norms and practices. It also requires that the Council include lived experts who have experienced homelessness or housing need – in other words, people whose human rights have been violated. The authority that comes from knowledge and lived experience is essential and, it bears repeating, legally required.
In late November, the federal government announced the list of members for the inaugural Council. The people included are well-qualified; they are stakeholders with deep roots in their communities, experience advocating for better housing, and dedication to improving housing outcomes. The current list, however, does not include people with technical expertise in the international human rights norms and processes on which the National Housing Strategy Act is based. Nor does it include members with lived expertise. This is a major problem.
These two types of expertise are critical for making decisions based on human rights principles and practices, and are central to the Council’s mandate. Without these, the Council risks defaulting to the stated and unstated values that have driven policy decisions in the past – such as efficiency, administrative simplicity, or value for money. These are the values that have led to our current, inadequate housing system. Instead, the Council must make decisions based on human rights principles – such as progressive realization, use of maximum available resources, equity, and the participation of the people who are most affected, to name a few. Further, it will need practical know-how about implementing those principles.
Fortunately, the government has the scope to add to the initial list of members it announced in November. It should add members with relevant human rights and lived expertise to the Council, without delay. It should act now because the Council’s first decisions will be important. They will be scrutinized because they will set the tone for future action – or inaction. They will signal how serious Canada is about protecting and fulfilling the human right to housing.
If we were building a house, the National Housing Council and Federal Housing Advocate would not be the drywall, nor the hardwood floors. The walls and the floors are certainly important, but we can renovate them later if we need to. The Council and the Advocate are the very foundations of the home. And you don’t get a second chance to pour the foundation. A house built on a weak foundation will not stand.
Articulating a vision of human rights is an important step. The next step is to implement this vision. Implementation is hard work. When we fail to follow through, when we skimp, compromise, or play politics with its institutions and mechanisms, we effectively abandon the principles of human rights.
It’s been a long year. Many of us feel exhausted by the perseverance we have needed to get through the past several months. As we look to the promise of a new year, we must remain strong in our commitment to economic and social rights. We must pay attention to how we build our systems and institutions, because they will determine what human rights in Canada look like in 2021, and in the years and decades that follow.