UNITED NATIONS EXPERT ON ADEQUATE HOUSING CALLS FOR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION TO TACKLE NATIONAL HOUSING CRISIS IN CANADA
01 November 2007
The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Miloon Kothari, issued the following statement today:
Geneva, 1 November 2007: From 9 to 22 October 2007, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Mr. Miloon Kothari, conducted a mission to Canada to examine the status of realization of the right to adequate housing, particularly focusing on homelessness, women and their right to adequate housing, Aboriginal populations’ adequate housing and affordability and speculation of land and property including the possible impact of the 2010 Olympic Games on the right to adequate housing in Vancouver.
During the course of the mission, the Special Rapporteur visited urban and rural areas, including Montréal, Kahnawake territories, Edmonton, Little Buffalo and Lubicon, Vancouver, Musqueam territories, Toronto and Ottawa. In these locations, the Special Rapporteur met with high-ranking officials, representatives of various Government agencies, community-based housing and homelessness service providers, housing agencies, representatives of Aboriginal peoples and civil society organizations. He also heard testimonies from many women, men, youth and children across the country that were homeless or living in adequate and insecure housing, and participated in large public forums and hearings. On the last day of his mission, the Special Rapporteur shared his preliminary observations with the Canadian authorities.
During his mission, the Special Rapporteur heard testimonies and received voluminous reports from independent bodies, about the persistence of homelessness, substandard and inadequate housing and living conditions, an aging housing stock in both the public and private sectors, grossly inadequate housing and civic services, including potable water, conditions for Aboriginal people’s on and off reserves, health concerns, inadequate heating systems, and high energy costs.
In its most recent periodic review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights characterized the state of homelessness and inadequate housing as a “national emergency.”1
The Special Rapporteur confirms the deep and devastating impact of this national crisis on the lives of women, youth, children and men, including a large number of deaths2. The Special Rapporteur also noted as a cause of this national crisis the lack of a properly funded national poverty reduction strategy.
Homelessness is one of the most visible and most severe signs of the lack of respect for the right to adequate housing, which is even more shocking to see in a developed and wealthy country as Canada. The Special Rapporteur was disappointed that the Government of Canada could not provide reliable statistics on the number of homeless in the country. While the National Homelessness Secretariat has suggested that there might be 150,000 homeless people, experts and academic institutions have suggested that the actual number of homeless people may be at least double that amount.
The large number of people in Canada living in poverty, the growing number of food banks, and studies show that the number of people that cannot afford housing or sustain their rent is increasing, resulting in an increase number of homeless. One major cause of growing homelessness is the high cost of rents and the overall decline in renter household incomes in recent years. In addition to the high number of people who are homeless the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation also notes that 1.5 million Canadian households are officially classified as being in ‘housing core need’ which outs them at great risk of homelessness.
The increase of housing prices and the lack of affordability is growing in all sectors of the population. The Special Rapporteur observed how due to the shortage of social housing stock, the original target population has changed and programmes are distorted, needing to meet the necessities of a growing and more diverse population than originally assessed.
Canada lacks a national poverty reduction strategy, and only a handful of provinces have implemented provincial poverty reduction plans.
Grossly inadequate social assistance rates are trapping many of the lowest-income Canadian households into chronic poverty and inadequate housing. The Federal Government made major cuts to social spending, and cancelled the Canada Assistance Plan in 1995 (CAP provided a framework of national standards for income assistance) and virtually every province has allowed income assistance levels to drop to extremely low levels since then.
Women’s right to adequate housing
The lack of adequate and secure housing particularly impacts women who are disproportionally affected by the homelessness, the issue of affordability, violence and discrimination in the private housing rental market. During the visit, the Special Rapporteur heard dozens of testimonies of women including on the insufficiency of social assistance entitlements that do not match the cost of housing and other living expenses or about children being taken away from their mothers because they were living in inadequate housing, an issue that particularly affects Aboriginal women3.
Amongst the many forms of violence that aboriginal women suffer, studies show that they endure three times higher rate of spousal violence than non-Aboriginal. In this context, the lack of protection law for women living on a reserve, or the impossibility to file complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission constitutes one of the greatest barriers to the enjoyment the right to housing and a life free of violence. Another major barrier that needs to be overcome at the earliest is the family and matrimonial real property laws on reserves. Overcrowding houses, accommodating up to 3 generations in some regions, is one of the major causes for abuse, violence and homelessness. Women and young girls off reserve are experiencing violence in a daily basis.
Aboriginal peoples right to adequate housing
Throughout his mission, the Special Rapporteur was disturbed to see the devastating impact of the paternalism that marks federal and provincial government, legislations, policies and budgetary allocation for Aboriginal people on and off reserve. These policies have seriously compromised the right to self determination that Aboriginal people enjoy under the original treaties and the International human rights instruments and deeply affected their housing and living conditions4.
Overcrowded and inadequate housing conditions, as well as difficulties to access basic services, including water and sanitation, are major problems for Aboriginal peoples5. For instance, during his visit to the Lubicon Lake Nation, the Special Rapporteur could witness how families still live without access to potable water and sanitation and appalling living conditions. He also noted the destructive impact of oil extraction activities that continues to lead to the loss of lands and the asphyxiation of livelihoods and traditional practices.
Preparation of the Olympics in Vancouver
In his mandate, the Special Rapporteur has looked at the negative impact on housing in cities that host mega-events, such as the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, and the Commonwealth Games. These impacts include forced evictions for construction of infrastructures, city beautification and speculation of land and property and measures to remove homeless people from cities prior to and during the event. In Vancouver, the Special Rapporteur also looked into the potential impact of 2010 Olympic Games on the right to housing of low income people.
Vancouver has been an innovative city, incorporating in their bid the Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement, developed by a representatives from a variety of inner-city community organizations and government agencies, which seek amongst its main objectives to address issues related to housing, civil liberties and public safety, health and social services, environment, transportation, accessible and affordable Games. The bid also included a sustainability plan aiming at guaranteeing that the social, economic and environmental impacts and opportunities of the event produce lasting benefits, locally and globally.
The Special Rapporteur is of the view that the resources generated by such an event should be used to improve adverse housing situation in Vancouver. The Special Rapporteur met with the CEO of VANOC who expressed his commitment to ensure that the games would contribute to improve housing conditions of the poor in Vancouver as a positive legacy.
Canada has a long and proud history of housing successes, and has been known around the world for its innovative housing solutions especially for its non-aboriginal population. During this mission, the Special Rapporteur visited and received information about a number of programmes, laws and policies addressed at housing that are good practices, including Centers and shelters accommodating homeless people, women fleeing from violence, aboriginal women, HIV-AIDS positive people, children with disabilities, and people suffering from drug addictions. All of these Centers were fully or partially funded by the various programmes of the State.
But the funding support is irregular, groups are often required to rely on voluntary contributions and voluntary labour, and the process of sustaining non-government organizations is occupying a greater amount of time and resources.
At the end of his mission, the Special Rapporteur made a number of preliminary recommendations to the Canadian authorities including the following:
The Federal Government needs to commit stable and long-term funding and programmes to realize a comprehensive national housing strategy, and to co-ordinate actions among the provinces and territories, to meet Canada’s housing rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur also noted that Canada needs to once again embark on a large scale building of social housing units across the country.
As part of a comprehensive national housing strategy, particular funding should be directed to groups that have been forced to the margins, including women, Aboriginal people, elders, youth, members of racialized communities, immigrants and groups with special needs. There should be a national adoption of the housing continuum concept including a plan to make available various forms of housing including transitional and supportive housing.
The Government and Parliament of Canada, along with the provinces and municipalities, are urged to take immediate steps to comply with concluding observations from United Nations treaty bodies including the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Economic, social and cultural rights should be fully recognized in all relevant government legislation and should be fully justifiable including monitoring, implementing, investigative and accountability mechanisms.
The Federal Government needs a comprehensive and properly-funded poverty reduction strategy based on its human rights obligation. Complementary plans should be implemented in the provinces and territories that are linked to a comprehensive national housing strategy.
The Federal Government should commit the funding and resources to ensure all households have access to potable water and proper sanitation consistent with the recognition of water as a human rights and recommendations for State policies as detailed in General Comment Number 15 of the CESCR.
Canada should implement measures to address urgent, short term and long term needs of women in the country. Immediate implementation at all levels of the government of the recommendations from the United Nations treaty bodies on these specific measures, would eliminate the various barriers that women face both in urban and rural context in their daily life.
The Federal Government needs to commit funding and resources for a targeted national Aboriginal housing strategy – both on- and off-reserve – that ensures that Aboriginal housing and services are under Aboriginal control.
In line with treaty body recommendations, the Special Rapporteur calls for a moratorium on all oil and extractive activities in the Lubicon region until a settlement is reached with Lubicon Lake Nation. The Federal Government should resume negotiation with the Lubicon Lake consistent to the Human Rights Law instruments including the Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Vancouver Olympic officials, and the relevant city authorities, need to continue to implement specific targets and strategies on housing and homelessness, and to commit funding and other resources to support these targets, including the construction of 3,200 units of affordable housing6. The social development plan of the Vancouver Games should be developed and implemented in public, so that the progress of Vancouver officials can be effectively monitored. The Special Rapporteur would recommend the formation of an independent monitoring body to assist VANOC in complying with its commitments to improve the housing rights situation in the region where the Olympics will take place.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Notes Concluding observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada (E/C.12/CAN/CO/4, E/C.12/CAN/CO/5), para. 62. As far back as 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee after reviewing Canada’s State report expressed concern that “... homelessness has led to serious health problems and even to death. The Committee recommends that the State Party takes positives measures to address this serious problem ....” These testimonies matched other testimonies received by the Special Rapporteur in other occasions. See for instance the Women and Housing reports of the Special Rapporteur available at: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/housing/women.htm The United Nations Human Rights Committee review in 2006 referred to this phenomenon of having the potential to lead to “… extinguishment of inherent aboriginal rights ….” Report on the Mission to Canada of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. E/CN.4/2005/88/Add.3. See http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/commsvcs/housing/pdf/icihousingtablemar07.pdf