All eyes will be on the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Tuesday morning as it releases the first-ever (for Canada) official report on the human right to adequate housing.
Human rights function as both a moral ideal and as a “deeply pragmatic political tool” at both the international and national levels, to paraphrase Professor Conor Gearty, the Director of the London School of Economics Centre for the Study of Human Rights. In other words, the rights-based approach to housing allows us to set realistic goals and at the same time implement practical and effective solutions.
Last fall, the Wellesley Institute sponsored a community forum on the international right to adequate housing with Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, who was on an official fact-finding mission to Canada. OHRC Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall was a guest speaker at that forum, and in her comments she made a strong link between the international right to adequate housing guaranteed in dozens of treaties, covenants and other legal instruments, and the realities of massive and growing housing insecurity in Toronto and throughout Ontario.
The international human right to adequate housing was first recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in December of 1948 (this year is the 60th anniversary of this important and historic document). It was a Canadian, John Humphrey, who played a key role in the development of the universal declaration.
The right to adequate housing is set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and a great many other international legal instruments – almost all of which Canada has ratified. The international right to housing has been set out in great detail, but it has never been explicitly incorporated into Canadian domestic law. There are private member’s bills before the national Parliament and the Ontario Legislature to achieve this. In the meantime, legal experts believe that the international right to housing can be “read into” the “right to life” as set out in s7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Last summer, in a Canadian first for an official human rights commission, the OHRC held a province-wide consultation on the right to housing. The commission heard plenty of horror stories about how the lack of affordable and safe housing is damaging the health and lives of Ontarians. It also received plenty of practical suggestions to bring Ontario laws, programs and policies – everything from the shelter allowance rate for social assistance recipients to regulations affecting social housing – in line with international standards for housing rights.
The OHRC doesn’t have the power to order the Ontario government to make changes, but it has a powerful role assigned by the Legislature.
The practical debate about how to bring funding and practices in Ontario up to international housing rights standards is long overdue. The release of the OHRC report on Tuesday will provide a major boost for that debate.