Speaking Notes for Evan Siddall, President and Chief Executive Officer Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum, Canadian Museum of Human Rights

Winnipeg, Manitoba

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I will begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty One territory, the original lands of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation.

I’m delighted to be here today at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights to help add to Canada’s status as a leader in advancing global human rights. This museum, the dream of the Asper family, holds the stories of so many whose rights have been tied to home, identity and hope for a better life.  I want to honour their legacy by speaking about how we, at CMHC, are approaching the international right to adequate housing in Canada.

In doing so, I will offer my own views on the Government of Canada’s potential legislation concerning a human rights-based approach to housing. In particular, I want to connect the dots between this potential legislation, on the one hand, and global human rights on the other. Proposing legislation is the job of elected officials; I offer merely the observations of a technocrat, albeit one who thinks a great deal about housing. And our timing is opportune: CMHC recently concluded nationwide consultations on the subject. I will have more to say about that shortly.

Before that, however, I want to assert that by advancing the right to adequate housing, we burnish other human rights. Adequate housing itself provides dignity, security and a stronger foundation for people. Nelson Mandela said that denying someone’s human rights is to challenge their very humanity. Don’t we therefore humanize the disenfranchised by supporting their human rights?

Human Rights Start at Home

Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Evicted, called home “the wellspring of personhood …, where our identity takes root and blossoms.” He says it is where we “find safety and security, where we find our identities, where citizenship starts.”1 Virginia Woolf famously wrote of women’s need for “A Room of One’s Own” in order to find their voices.2 Both writers are saying that home is the foundation on which human rights must stand.

After all, how can a person living with disabilities advance their right to independence without adequate housing? How can a woman experiencing domestic violence realize her right to live in safety if she has nowhere safe to go? Can a young Indigenous girl truly exercise her right to her security if she lives in an over-crowded, unhealthy home without heat or running water?

Yet in Canada, millions of people face these and other barriers every day. The latest data tell us that 1.7 million Canadian households currently live in housing that is overcrowded, in disrepair or unaffordable.3

The problem is exacerbated by larger economic forces at work: a global trend toward the financialization of housing in large cities that is driving up prices and contributing to greater wealth inequity.4

In fact, housing markets in many parts of Canada have been building wealth more effectively than they have been building community. Homeowners are focused on protecting their investment — and that’s understandable. But when protecting investments becomes more important than protecting human rights, we need to consider policy interventions: policies like Canada’s first-ever National Housing Strategy.5

Ours is a 10-year, $40 billion plan primarily to address the urgent housing needs of our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. The goal is to lift 530,000 Canadians out of housing need and to cut chronic homelessness in half. At the same time, it’s a plan to increase our housing stock as a step toward recalibrating the growing inequities created by the commodification of housing.

When CMHC held public consultations to develop the Strategy,6 we heard that Canadians believe everyone deserves to have the dignity of a home. Achieving this goal is a long-term project. Acute housing need cannot be fixed in a year, nor even ten years. The most promising way to sustain this approach for future generations is to protect it through legislation. That’s why the Government wants to do just that.

Of course, legislating a complex issue like housing, especially in a federal system of government like ours, is no easy matter. In the end, we need to be sure the legislation allows us to continue to build on our aspiration to continually improve housing for Canadians.

Our International Commitment to Adequate Housing

In Canada, one can argue that section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, whichguarantees theright to “life, liberty and security of the person” would include a right to adequate housing, as may the equality rights contained in section 15.7 However, housing isn't expressly included in our Charter — and expressly adding it would require a problematic constitutional amendment. So we’ve looked to our international commitments to inspire and give heft to our approach.

The first such commitment dates back to the early years of the United Nations. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.8 Canada was an early signatory to the Declaration – and it was, incidentally, a Canadian, John Humphrey, who co-created it with Eleanor Roosevelt.9

Thirty years later, Canada signed the most important source of housing rights in international law: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Like the Universal Declaration before it, the Covenant guaranteed the right to adequate housing as part of the right to a sufficient standard of living.10 In 2014, the UN assigned Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty, as its Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. This solidified the UN’s commitment to extend the idea of human rights to housing — and upped the ante for Canada to live up to its international promises.

The Covenant provides an important touchstone for legislation, so it’s worth pausing here to underscore a few points.

First, the Covenant has not been incorporated directly into Canadian law. It can’t be the specific basis for a cause of action in Canadian courts. However, it still carries legal weight. International human rights treaties can be a “relevant and persuasive” source for interpreting Charter rights.11 We also consider these commitments when developing laws, policies, plans and programs. Incorporating the Covenant by reference would therefore send a strong signal.

Second, the Covenant is a forty-year-old promise we made to the world — and to ourselves. Keeping this promise means continuously taking steps to realize those Covenant rights, to the maximum of available resources. It means not deliberately doing anything that sets us back in this progress. This is known as “progressive realization,” and it allows for a flexible approach to implementing the Covenant. It recognizes that nations vary widely both economically and in their legal and political systems.

Third, the international right is not directive. It’s a more nuanced commitment that covers a range of measures, including the need to address homelessness, protect tenants, address discrimination, and focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

Human Rights, Housing and Our Federation

I’m going to pause here, and dip my toe more deeply into constitutional matters, if only to underscore the need for a sensitive approach to implementing the Covenant in Canada.

Our constitution doesn’t explicitly assign housing to either level of government, federal or provincial. Over time, both levels of government have worked out their respective roles.

Provinces and territories have jurisdiction over property and civil rights and other "matters of a local nature," like planning, land use and building regulation, while the federal government is responsible for broader socio-economic concerns including basic human rights and minimum living standards. We also support and influence housing by providing funding for social housing, much as the federal government does for education and healthcare. And the idea of adequate housing being at the core of human rights adds further weight to federal involvement.

This jurisdictional tension arose regularly over the past two years as CMHC negotiated a multilateral partnership framework to deliver the elements of the National Housing Strategy with provinces and territories. While the federal government’s past housing programs and willingness to fund housing have made it a shared concern, Quebec, in particular, continues to assert that housing remains within its exclusive jurisdiction.12

I won’t delve further into this loaded subject, other than to say that housing is a shared and necessary priority for both the Government of Canada and provinces and territories. Ultimately Canadians win when all levels of government roll up their sleeves and work together.

How therefore do we breathe life into our international commitments? Our challenge is to “progressively realize” the international right to adequate housing without involving the courts in the complexity of housing policy, or re-opening the constitutional wrangles of the past.

I’d like to suggest today that the answer lies in two things.

Housing: A Linchpin for Human Rights

The first involves a shift in the way we think about the right to adequate housing. The Government’s approach — and its entire National Housing Strategy — is predicated on housing as the linchpin for other rights. I do not believe federal legislation should merely create a "litigable" right to housing — with an inaccessible remedy for vulnerable people; rather, it should recognize that housing is the foundation for a whole host of existing rights that most of us take for granted. Said another way, and as I illustrated with my earlier examples, without housing, other rights are sabotaged.

Every day, my colleagues and I hear stories about how affordable, accessible housing has changed people’s lives — how it gave them the stability to find and keep a job, how it gave them a safe place to raise their family, a sense of belonging and a chance to participate in society.

Our first step, enshrining the need for a National Housing Strategy in law, inherently acknowledges the value of a coordinated approach, a shared vision and real accountability. It is a way to bring housing and “rights” closer together. This idea really is central to our thinking: housing matters.13

Legislation Based on Human Rights

The second prong of the answer is to design legislation that rests on universal human rights principles, as the Government intends to do. This increases the statute's staying power and makes it harder for future governments to renege on the promise.

For an example of how this can work in practice, look no further than the Official Languages Act.  It has acquired a stature with Canadians — and courts — that far outstrips its status as ordinary legislation.

So how does our particularly Canadian approach compare worldwide?

Right to Housing around the World

Today, Canada is one of 166 countries party to the Covenant, a number that underscores the fundamental nature of human rights. Yet no country has fully realized the right to adequate housing.

Instead, there’s a pastiche of approaches, many promising, even inspiring. All of them draw colour and form from their local context.

Some have ventured into justiciable rights territory. For example, the United Kingdom’s Homelessness Act guarantees access to housing for the “unintentionally” homeless in “priority need.” In this way, while not grafting the Covenant into domestic law, it has extended housing-related rights to a small group of its most vulnerable citizens. Still, the UK suffers from a persistence of homelessness.14

Scotland has some of the most far-reaching homelessness legislation in the world. Instructively for Canada, this law was one of Scotland’s early wins post-devolution — an all-party initiative in co-operation with municipalities and the UK Parliament.15 Scotland itself legislated a right to “settled accommodation” for the “unintentionally homeless.” Yet, it too faces homelessness challenges.16

Similar legislation has existed in France since in 2007, yet vulnerable claimants, such as newcomers, cannot access the court-enforceable right to housing.17

Perhaps the most intriguing illustration of a rights-based framework comes from South Africa, with its constitutionally recognized "right to access to adequate housing." The right is implemented by a dedicated department and is overseen by a Constitutional Court that once ordered the government to implement emergency housing measures.18 But here too, even a constitutional right to housing and a landmark court decision aren’t enough. They have failed to address an acute and chronic shortage of adequate housing in South Africa, the country that has the misfortune of being the most unequal country in the world.19

A conventional litigation pathway is therefore not a panacea and would offer no comfort to people who can’t hire a lawyer.

Activating a Right to Adequate Housing

Here in Canada, we are considering a different approach — a “human rights-based approach” that ensures all government policy and decisions will be tested against three mutually-reinforcing imperatives. These each ensure that our work focuses on where a human right matters — on where it is needed.

1. Seeking Marginalized Voices

First, are we creating space for new voices to participate fully in the conversation? Are we fulfilling the principles of participation and inclusion?

“Nothing about us, without us” is a key tenet in human rights literature. The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing has emphasized the importance of participatory mechanisms to fully informed housing policy.20 Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for nations to set targets, benchmarks and priorities in a participatory manner “so that they reflect the concerns and interests of all segments of the society.”21

This principle rests at the heart of the National Housing Strategy. Easy to say and harder to do, we have tried in our consultations to involve people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness. We continue to seek more effective ways to include these marginalized voices.

2. Non-Discrimination

Secondly, are we helping those in greatest need? Another main pillar of a human rights-based approach is avoiding discrimination in policies and programs, and focussing especially on disadvantaged groups.

As mentioned previously, the National Housing Strategy focuses first on the most vulnerable. As an example, under our the National Housing Co-Investment Fund that we launched just over a month ago, we have set specific goals in terms of creating homes for survivors of family violence, seniors and people living with developmental disabilities, among others.

3. Accountability

The third way we can put into practice a human rights-based approach is by holding ourselves accountable. Effective monitoring and reporting on the implementation and outcomes of housing is, in the words of the Special Rapporteur, our “firm obligation.”22

We have therefore set measurable goals with deadlines and we will be monitoring our progress against identified indicators, benchmarks and outcomes. We are adding to our research activities at CMHC and we're working with others, like Statistics Canada, to be sure we are moving as fast as we can.

We are also evaluating how we far we can go in the legislation to expand our accountability. A final decision rests with elected officials and people who think about the machinery of government; however, both the National Housing Advocate and the Federal Housing Council being proposed offer appealing avenues for enhanced accountability. These could include applications by individuals or intervenors and a mandate to investigate systemic issues and recommend solutions. We could also, for example, require these entities to report annually to our Minister or possibly even to Parliament. We could also have them offer suggested improvements via the tri-annual stock-taking review required by the National Housing Strategy.

Inclusion — The Missing Link

If we are to build a healthier society, inclusion must be even closer to the centre of housing in Canada. After all, we are building homes for people, not houses. Inclusion of the previously marginalized is a particular benefit of how we are thinking of constituting the Housing Advocate and Council.

As Harvard-trained activist Vernā Myers has famously said, “diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”23 It is about belonging.

Further, we’ll support local organizations that represent marginalized people through the Community-Based Tenant Initiative. This will help tenants to better represent themselves in local and project-specific decision making, and build financial literacy and other skill sets.

Recently we’ve heard stories about Vancouver city councillors being threatened and having to be escorted to public meetings about housing projects in certain areas of the city. This is a disturbing departure from the values of inclusion and tolerance that Canadians expect — and that the world needs — from our country.

It speaks to the need to fix social housing’s image problem. Discrimination and stigmatization further marginalize people living in community housing. It also leads to NIMBY-ism that prevents new housing and inclusive communities. To help counter this discrimination, we will carry out a major public education campaign in 2020.

We have also asked provinces and territories to acknowledge our human rights-based approach and to take systemic planning into account in their own housing policies. We are very grateful to the leadership of the Province of Ontario24. As the first to sign a bilateral agreement, it has agreed to these provisions and has set a standard for the other provinces and territories.

A Place to Call Home

Some commentators have invested a lot in our pending legislation. While the decision is ultimately the government’s to make, we need to balance the value of, for example, a specific adjudicative remedial process with the costs of it. We also want to maintain our strong housing partnership with provinces and territories. A legislated judicial remedy would be antagonistic and would invite a jurisdictional sideshow. In the end, perfection should not be the enemy of the good. And embedding a human rights-based approach in our National Housing Strategy is good.

Canada is a place where we all deserve a place to call home. Ours is a country that stands for freedom and inclusion. We must be an example, by taking care of our own vulnerable citizens — and we must include housing.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to action resonates:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”25

And so we gather here near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, a meeting place. The hope of this beautiful Museum was to inspire conversations that led to further progress of human rights around the world. We hope to honour the legacy of this Museum and to present Canada as a place where we can all live in freedom, equal before the law and feeling like we all belong.

That starts with housing.

1 Matthew Desmond, 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City, Crown, 2016.

2 Virginia Woolf, 1929, A Room of One’s Own, Hogwarth Press, 1929.

3 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC),“Housing need stable in Canada, 1.7 million Canadian households affected” (news release), 15 November 2017.

4 Leilani Farha, 2017. “Housing is a human right, not a commodity,” Globe and Mail, 15 April 2017. See also Manuel Aalbers, The Financialization of Housing: A Political Economy Approach, Routledge, 2016; Evan Siddall, “No Solitudes: A Canadian National Housing Strategy,” speech to Canadian Club Toronto, 1 June 2017 and Evan Siddall, “Housing Policy for Shared Prosperity,” speech to OECD Policy Forum on Social Policy, Montréal, 14 May 2018.

5 See www.cmhc-nhs.ca for further information on Canada’s National Housing Strategy.

6 CMHC, National Housing Strategy: What We Heard from Canadians (news release), 22 November 2016.

7 The Supreme Court denied leave to appeal the decision in Tanudjaja v. Canada, 2014 ONCA 852, in which a Charter-based right to housing argument was rejected; see Laurie Monsebraaten, “Homelessness denied its day in court,” Toronto Star, 25 June 2015. For a review of the state of a right to housing in Canadian law at the time, see “A Road to Home: The Right to Housing in Canada and Around the World,” Journal of Law and Social Policy, Vol 24, 2015; the special volume collects papers presented at a symposium on the subject on 24 October 2013.

8 United Nations, 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

9 Norman Hillmer, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, edited 4 March 2016. 

10 United Nations, 1976, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2 January 1976.

11 R. v. Hape, 2007 SCC 26 at paras. 55 – 56; Health Services and Support — Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. B.C., 2007 SCC 27 at paras. 69 – 70 & 78; Ref. Re: Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.), [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313 at 349 – 350; Suresh v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [2002] 1 S.C.R. 3 at para. 46; Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1038 at 1056 – 57.

12 Leilani Farha, Responsibilities of sub-national governments with respect to the right to adequate housing, Info Note, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2016.

13 Evan Siddall, 2015, “Why Housing Matters,” speech to the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montréal, 3 December 2015. Available upon request.

14 Crisis, The Homelessness Monitor (a longitudinal study of homelessness impacts of economic and policy developments in the United Kingdom), 2018.

15 Fiona King, 2015. “Scotland: Delivering a Right to Housing,” 24 Journal of Law and Social Policy, Osgoode Digital Commons, 2015.

16 Fiona King, 2012. “Social housing shortage puts Scottish homelessness targets in doubt,” The Guardian, 6 March 2012.

17 Claire Lévy-Vroelan, 2015, “The Right to Housing in France: Still a Long Way to Go from Intention to Implementation,” Journal of Law and Social Policy 24. (2015): 88 – 108.

18 In Government of the Republic of South Africa versus Grootboom, the South African constitutional court enforced the constitutionality of the right to adequate housing as guaranteed in s.26 of the South African constitution.

19 The World Bank's March 2018 South Africa Economic Update noted that South Africa's 2015 Gini coefficient was the highest in the world and that inequality had worsened in South Africa since 1994. The Gini coefficient is the most commonly employed measure of income inequality. Sebastien C. Dessus and Marek Hanusch, 2018, South Africa Economic Update: jobs and inequality. South Africa Economic Update; no. 11. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

20 Miloon Kothari, 2007, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, UN Human Rights Council, 4th Sess, UN Doc A/HRC/4/18, (2007)

21 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Principles and Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies, UN Doc HR/PUB/06/12 (Geneva: OHCHR, 2006) at para 55 [OHCHR, Guidelines].

22 Leilani Farha, 2018, Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, UN Human Rights Council, 37th sess, UN Doc A/HRC/37/53 (2018).

23 Vernā Myers, 2017, “Harvard Business School has a Diversity Problem — Here’s How to Fix It,” Refinery 29, 24 May 2017.

24 CMHC, Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, 2018, “Ontario signs bilateral agreement under the National Housing Strategy” (news release), 30 April 2018

25 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Great Question,” remarks delivered at the United Nations in New York on 27 March 1958.

Date Published: June 12, 2018