By Kazumi Moore
The National Housing Strategy Act, 2019 (NHSA) created my office, the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It also declared that housing was a human right (NHSA s.4). Canada has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes the right to adequate housing at Article 11. However, in the common law, it’s often said that there’s no right without a remedy, and Canadian courts have been reluctant to recognize a right to housing.
The right to housing has only been looked at by Canadian courts a few times. In City of Victoria v Adams (2008), the homeless community in Canada challenged a city bylaw that banned the construction of temporary shelters in public parks where the litigants lived as a violation of their s.7 rights (life, liberty, security of the person). The judge agreed that the ban unjustifiably violated s.7 and the decision was upheld by the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Notably, City of Victoria v Adams was decided prior to the enactment of the NHSA.
The right to adequate housing was litigated directly in Tanudjaja v Canada (Attorney General) (2014). Individual applicants suffering from homelessness and inadequate housing brought Charter ss.7 and 15 (equality) claims against the Canadian government’s general approach to housing, which resulted in social conditions that violated their rights. This case was decided on a motion to dismiss, not the merits. The motion judge found “no positive Charter obligation which required Canada and Ontario to provide for ‘affordable, adequate, accessible housing’” or any breach of the principles of fundamental justice regarding the s.7 claim (ONCA, para 17). On the s.15 claim, the motion judge found that the applicants were not denied a benefit conferred to others or burdened compared to others by the actions of the government, and that homelessness or inadequate housing did not constitute an analogous ground of discrimination. The motion judge concluded that the claim for a right to adequate housing was not justiciable, a decision upheld by a majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court denied leave to appeal.
There is a general assertion that “positive claims against the state for the provision of certain needs are not justiciable because they would require courts to dictate to the state how it should allocate scarce resources, a role for which they are not institutionally competent” (Gosselin v Quebec (AG), para 330). While there is international consensus that the “positive” and “negative” rights dichotomy is false and not useful, Canadian courts still look at positive obligations as “non-justiciable.” That said, positive obligations have been found in other non-housing contexts, such as Canada v PHS Community Services (2011) for s.7 and Eldridge v BC (AG) (1997) for s.15.
According to the Supreme Court in R v Ewanchuk (1999), “the Charter is the primary vehicle through which international human rights achieve domestic effect. […] In particular s.15 (equality provisions) and s.7 (which guarantees the right to life, security and liberty of the person) embody the notion of respect of human dignity and integrity” (para 73). The concept of human dignity is particularly relevant to the right to adequate housing. One expert our office met with noted that Ontario courts have stated eviction is next worst thing that can happen to someone after incarceration. Human dignity is also referenced in the National Housing Strategy Act in s.4(b): “housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person and to building sustainable and inclusive communities.”
Gosselin v Quebec (AG) (2002) is a leading case used to try to get the courts to recognize positive obligations in Charter rights. It concerned an inadequate level of social assistance benefits given to the applicant who had not enrolled in a workfare program. The majority of the Supreme Court ruled against the applicant with a restrictive interpretation of s.7, emphasizing a “deprivation” of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. However, the majority also stated that “one day s.7 may be interpreted to include positive obligations” (para 82). Arbour J. wrote a significant dissent, arguing that s.7 “imposes a positive obligation on the state to offer basic protection for the life, liberty and security of its citizens,” and that “justiciability is [not] a threshold issue barring the consideration of the substantive claim in this case” (headnote). Bastarache J. in a separate dissent suggested that poverty could constitute an s.15 analogous ground of discrimination, stating “the fact that people on social assistance are in a precarious, vulnerable position adds weight to the argument that differentiation that affects them negatively may pose a greater threat to their human dignity” (para 238).
The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted how housing is viewed, both by the public and by the law. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing stated that “housing is the front-line defence against COVID-19.” People were told to “stay home,” even though not everyone had housing where they could stay to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. In Quebec, a curfew between the hours of 8PM and 5AM was ordered as a public health measure. This disproportionately affected people experiencing homelessness, who had nowhere to go. A safeguard order brought to prevent the curfew and fines from applying the homeless population was granted, and the judge noted that serious questions were raised about whether the curfew infringed the ss.7 and 15 rights of people experiencing homelessness. However, there were also some positive developments in the right to housing, like eviction moratoriums, rental relief, hotels opened to people experiencing homelessness. While none of these solutions were perfect, it is important to capitalize on this progress while continuing to call attention to flaws in policies and new issues (policing encampments). While we strive for the judicial recognition of the right to housing, we should also think about what the right to housing looks like outside of the courts.