Canada recognizes housing as a human right. Few provinces have followed suit

By Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

As more Canadians find themselves struggling to afford or find housing, the country’s smallest province is the only one that can point to legislation recognizing housing as a human right.

The Canadian Press asked every province whether it agreed with the federal housing advocate that shelter is a human right, and if it intends to introduce legislation upholding that right.

Most did not answer the questions directly and responded with a laundry list of initiatives launched to address the housing crises brewing in their jurisdictions. In Quebec, the government’s lack of interest in addressing the question was revealed in an errant email sent to a reporter.

When prodded for a response one week after an initial request, a spokesperson for Quebec’s housing minister mistakenly sent a reply intended for a government colleague.

“Do I ghost her again?” she wrote Thursday. “Otherwise, a general response that doesn’t answer, to say housing is a priority for our government?” By Friday afternoon, Quebec had not provided a response.

Manitoba said it recognizes “Canada’s rights-based approach to housing,” and Newfoundland and Labrador said it agrees with federal and international law recognizing housing as a human right.

Prince Edward Island responded with a link to its Residential Tenancy Act, the first line of which acknowledges that Canada has a signed United Nations’ treaty affirming housing as a human right — though critics point out there is nothing in the act upholding that right.

Federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle urged every province to adopt legislation recognizing housing as a human right in her report on homeless encampments released on Feb. 13. She was appointed to her role in 2022 to monitor Canada’s progress in realizing its own declaration that shelter is a fundamental right.

Houle wondered in an interview if provinces just don’t understand what it would mean to make it explicit that they viewed housing as a human right. But whether they do so or not, they have still signed onto an agreement under the National Housing Strategy to adopt a “human rights-based approach to housing.”

“I’m not sure that all the provinces have this in their collective memory,” Houle said Thursday.

That approach includes listening to people without homes and focusing on getting them housing that meets their needs, rather than deciding what’s best for homeless people without their input and forcing them into stopgap measures, such as shelters that they don’t want to live in, she said.

It also includes providing heat, electricity and bathrooms for people living in homeless encampments if adequate housing is not available. Essentially, it’s a commitment to work from the recognition that homelessness is a systemic issue and people are homeless because governments of all levels have failed them, Houle added.

To the provinces, she said: “We need all players at the table.”

Dale Whitmore, policy director with the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights, said provinces could take a simple first step toward recognizing and upholding housing as a human right by adding a clause to their tenancy acts saying that eviction can only be used as an absolute last resort.

Whitmore said it is critical for provinces to recognize and protect the human right to housing through legislation. The rules must do both, he added, noting that while P.E.I.’s tenancy act recognizes the right, it offers nothing to uphold it.

“We need rent regulation that keeps rents affordable and protects tenants against unreasonable and excessive rents, and we need eviction protections to stop people from losing their homes because of unaffordable rents,” Whitmore said. “As the housing crisis continues to worsen, we’re only going to need those things more.”

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