September 14, 2018
Hon. Lisa MacLeod
Minister of Children, Community and Social Services
Hepburn Block 6th Floor
80 Grosvenor St.
Toronto, ON M7A 1E9
Dear Minister MacLeod:
RE: Human rights and the government plan to reform social assistance
I hope this letter finds you well. I congratulate you on your appointment as Minister of Children, Community and Social Services. I am writing today about the government’s plans to reform social assistance programs and to provide input from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and seek further opportunities to engage with the government as it develops its plan.
In our 2017-2022 Strategic Plan, the OHRC committed to use our mandate to bring a human rights lens to government and community strategies aimed at addressing poverty, homelessness, and hunger.
Pursuant to the Human Rights Code ("Code”), Ontario must ensure that its programs do not have a discriminatory impact – such as adverse impact on groups identified by Code grounds who are disproportionately affected by poverty. Ontario must also fulfil its international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Code and international human rights laws set out foundational principles around respect, dignity, inclusion, privacy and self-determination. We urge the government to keep these human rights principles in mind as it develops its social assistance plan.
The OHRC shares the government’s view that social assistance programs are an important part of Ontario’s safety net, and that too many people are living in and trapped in a cycle of poverty. Alleviating poverty and homelessness benefits all Ontarians, because it creates a more inclusive, equitable and stable society, and alleviates pressure on emergency, health, law enforcement and other social services.
Nearly 2 million Ontarians (14%) have low incomes. Poverty rates are much higher for groups identified by grounds listed in the Code, including people with disabilities (23.5%), Indigenous peoples (23.7%), Black people (24.1%), female-led families (29.8%), newer immigrants (35.6% of immigrants arriving between 2001-2016), and Arab persons (40.6%). Women, single people, children, transgender people, and lesbian, gay and bisexual youth also disproportionately experience poverty and homelessness.
Poverty and systemic discrimination are interconnected, and produce compounded effects. Discrimination in employment, housing and services undermines security and increases social and economic marginalization. Living in poverty limits people’s ability to redress discrimination and to realize their rights to housing, health care, and employment. It also can force people into precarious, low-wage employment that makes them more vulnerable to discrimination and does not allow them to improve their circumstances. The Poverty Reduction Act (s. 2(2)) recognizes the heightened risk of poverty among certain groups, the need to support families so they can play a role in reducing poverty, and the links between discrimination and economic barriers.
When Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976, it committed the federal, provincial and territorial governments to recognize the fundamental right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, and to take appropriate steps to realize this right, to the maximum of available resources
The OHRC has heard in our public consultations that social assistance rates are inadequate, compared to the costs of living.[i] We are concerned that social assistance levels in Ontario have been below the poverty line since the late 1990s. Social assistance levels have failed to keep pace with rising costs, such that, by 2014, a single person receiving Ontario Works was living at 59% below the Low Income Measure.[ii] For 25 years the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has repeatedly raised concerns that our social assistance rates are insufficient to ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living.[iii] We urge the government to take this opportunity to finally ensure an adequate standard of living, by establishing social assistance rates and rules that reflect current costs of living in Ontario’s communities.
We are also particularly concerned with the extreme poverty faced by many Indigenous people across Ontario. We urge the government to ensure that its plan addresses poverty faced by Indigenous communities in both rural and urban settings, and recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and to consultation on legislative and administrative measures that may affect them, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The OHRC has a long tradition of working with government to protect and advance human rights, as enshrined in both the Code and international instruments. We would welcome an opportunity to engage with you to discuss this important work before your 100-day deadline, and to ensure a human rights-based approach that is consistent with the Code and Ontario’s international obligations. Please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M.
Ontario Human Rights Commission
cc: Hon. Caroline Mulroney, Attorney General
[i] See, for example, the OHRC reports: Minds that Matter: Report on the consultation on human rights, mental health and addictions (2012); and Right at Home: Report of the consultation on human rights and rental housing (2008).