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Recognizing that poverty is a human rights issue

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Our strategic focus

Poverty: Advance the field of human rights law by making clear how systemic discrimination causes and sustains poverty, and addressing poverty within a human rights framework.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing, has been recognized as a fundamental human right. While the Code specifically prohibits discrimination on the ground of “receipt of public assistance” in housing, it is important to uncover and understand the ways that poverty and systemic discrimination are intertwined in all social areas covered by the Code.

There is a strong connection between the Code and poverty. The Code applies to the people who are most at-risk of having low income, and in the parts of society where the causes – and effects – of poverty are most keenly felt. These include people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, racialized people, women, caregivers, single parents, older persons, newcomers, people with diverse genders, and newcomers.

And the situation is often worse for many people who have inter-sectional identities, such as racialized women with disabilities or two-spirited Indigenous youth.

Over the next few years, our goal is to advance the field of human rights law by making clear how systemic discrimination causes and sustains poverty and “social conditions” such as homelessness and hunger. We will also make clear how systemic discrimination disproportionately affects people experiencing poverty.

Our work will focus on:

  • Recognizing the connection between human rights under the Code and economic and social rights protected in international law
  • Adding explicit protection under the Code from discrimination for people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness
  • Making sure that proposed strategies to address poverty are responsive to human rights concerns.

We know that this is an area where we have some of the most challenging work left to do.

One step from homelessness

Let me share with you an experience I recently had in one Ontario town. During a visit with community members at the local Indigenous Friendship Centre, I heard first-hand about how poverty can make access to justice for human rights violations impossible.

Community members told me that there was only one apartment building in town that was affordable to people on social assistance. Many of the tenants were elderly First Nations people with mobility-related disabilities. Some of them regularly used a walker to get around. But there was a big problem – the ground floor apartments were priced out of their range and there was no elevator.

So the tenants had a choice – they could be trapped in their apartments, or they could find alternative ways to get to the main floor. I was told that the common solution was for people to throw their walkers down the stairs and then go down on their bottoms. They relied on the kindness of others to get back to their homes safely. That’s definitely not the sense of dignity envisioned in the Code.

They were unwilling to complain to the Human Rights Tribunal and asked me not to make any inquiries on their behalf. They were concerned that speaking out would render them homeless. They feared that the landlord would force them to leave their homes, retrofit the building, and then charge higher rates that would be unaffordable for them. They also feared that they would be labeled a “trouble-maker” which would have impacts in other areas of their life – like with their employer or health-care provider.

There is an inherent harm to human dignity when what you have is so precarious that you`re not willing to risk it to get something better. Even if that “better thing” is actually something you are legally entitled to.

– OHRC Chief Commissioner Mandhane, speech at Vibrant Communities Canada, Cities Reducing Poverty: When Business is Engaged

Protecting people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness from discrimination

In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which monitors Canada’s compliance with its international obligations recommended, as it has in the past, that Canada include the ground of social condition in its federal and provincial human rights codes.

We know that people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness face social stigma and discrimination that is distinct from other forms of discrimination, and the need for protection is urgent.

So we are intensifying our longstanding call to make this happen in Ontario.

Affordable housing – seeing results

For many people who identify with Code grounds, stable, affordable housing is a vital starting point for overcoming barriers that prevent them from taking part in – and contributing to – life in Ontario. Unfortunately, the lack of housing can be the biggest barrier of all. For many years, the OHRC has worked on many fronts to move forward, ranging from using our legal powers to remove minimum separation distances that limit housing options from municipal zoning bylaws, to calling for inclusionary zoning for affordable housing.

In the past year, we have seen significant results on both fronts. First, the Ministry of Housing is advising municipalities to make sure that minimum separation distances appearing in zoning and official plans do not discriminate.

Second, Bill 7 – the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, 2016 received Royal Assent in December 2016. For the first time in Ontario, the legislation requires municipalities to include inclusionary zoning in official plans by:

  • Authorizing the inclusion of affordable housing units within buildings or units
  • Providing for the units to be maintained as affordable housing units over time.

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