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Calling for an Ontario poverty reduction strategy with hard targets, permanent solutions

In April 2020, the OHRC made a submission to the government’s consultation on Ontario’s next Poverty Reduction Strategy, calling for a human rights-based approach by entrenching economic and social responses to COVID-19 as permanent solutions.

Poverty and systemic discrimination are interconnected and produce compounding effects. Certain groups identified by grounds in Ontario’s Human Rights Code disproportionately experience poverty together with poorer health and food security, lower education, precarious low-wage work, disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system, higher risk of homelessness and other forms of social and economic inequality. Particularly affected are women (especially single mothers and older women), Indigenous peoples, racialized communities including newcomers, persons with disabilities, adults living alone and other populations.

Social and economic crises, such as the current health pandemic, worsen existing inequalities, making people more vulnerable to discrimination. Poorer response for vulnerable groups undermines everyone’s well-being.

The OHRC made several recommendations for Ontario’s next Poverty Reduction Strategy including:

  • Recognizing the right to an adequate standard of living
  • Adding protection for social and economic disadvantage to Ontario’s Human Rights Code
  • Setting poverty reduction targets for Ontario that align with federal targets
  • Breaking down poverty-related data by disadvantaged populations
  • Recognizing that poverty reduction includes good health
  • Amending the Poverty Reduction Act to provide for robust independent monitoring of Ontario’s strategy
  • Developing an Indigenous-specific strategy in partnership with Indigenous communities
  • Committing to permanent solutions to poverty, like a guaranteed universal basic income
  • Monitoring data to avoid COVID-19 resurgence and other negative social and economic outcomes for vulnerable groups.

In December 2020, Ontario released its new Poverty Reduction Strategy and the OHRC wrote back raising serious concerns. While the OHRC supports the government’s goal to help people leave social assistance and find stable employment, the strategy does not address some of the more complex and intersecting reasons that lead people to need social assistance. The OHRC recommended that the government should:

  • Commit to measures that support low-income workers such as health benefits, paid sick days and portable housing supports
  • Set a specific target that aligns with or exceeds the federal target of a 20% reduction in poverty by 2020 and a 50% reduction by 2030
  • Set an additional target to eliminate deep poverty within five years
  • Annually report data on the proportion of the population that experiences chronic homelessness, unmet health needs, food insecurity, lack of literacy, minimum wage and low-paid work, broken down by disadvantaged groups
  • Regularly consult people with lived experience or heightened risk of poverty to guide implementing the strategy.


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Erin Caton @erin
This is a really good document. Part of poverty for disabled people is the inequity in accessible housing availability, which isn’t covered, but this is a great start. #ONpoli #CanadaRecovery


Making an intersectional analysis of poverty

In August 2020, the OHRC wrote to Associate Chief Justice Frank N. Marrocco, the Chair of the Independent Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission (LTC Commission) to stress the importance of human rights principles. The OHRC emphasized that many residents and staff risk experiencing unique, intersectional forms of discrimination because they identify with more than one Code ground. The OHRC highlighted that personal support workers (PSWs) who work at long-term care facilities are often racialized and/or newcomer women, who face compounded challenges. PSWs often endure precarious and low-wage contract employment necessitating multiple jobs, while facing barriers in having their nursing or other credentials from abroad recognized in Ontario. The OHRC encouraged the LTC Commission to consider the various intersectional human rights characteristics, discriminatory conditions and systemic structural forces that may be at play.


Tribunal decision removes roadblock to employment for refugees

In a significant decision, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) found that Convention refugees should not face discriminatory barriers to accessing employment and contributing fully to Ontario society.

Mr. Shyesh Al-Turki, a Syrian refugee, filed a claim at the HRTO alleging that Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) allows certain foreign-licensed drivers to have their foreign driving experience credited in Ontario’s graduated licensing system if they get documentation from their originating countries, which refugees cannot produce. This requirement has forced many refugees, including Mr. Al-Turki, to wait a year before taking the road test to get their full Ontario licence. This has created a barrier to finding employment by eliminating their options for working as drivers, and has often forced them to remain on social assistance and pay higher car insurance premiums.

The OHRC intervened in Al-Turki v Ontario (Transportation), and the HRTO relied on our arguments and evidence in finding that Ontario’s driver’s licensing policy:

  • Discriminates against refugees based on place of origin, citizenship and ethnic origin
  • Perpetuates disadvantage by imposing requirements based on conditions in the refugees’ home countries rather than individual merits
  • Exacerbates the already disadvantaged position of refugees by making it challenging to get their full driver’s licences in a timely manner 
  • Feeds into stereotypes that refugees cannot be trusted, enter Canada on false pretenses, and if they can’t find employment and remain on public assistance, are a “financial burden” for society.

In reaching its decision, the HRTO agreed with the OHRC position that the current driver’s licence policy is arbitrary and perpetuates historical disadvantage against refugees who are often poor, vulnerable and marginalized. It ordered the MTO to immediately stop requiring refugees to get state authentication of their driving experience, and to develop and publicize a new non-discriminatory policy in accordance with the principles in the decision within six months of the COVID-19 Emergency Order ending.

This HRTO decision will allow refugees to obtain a full driver’s licence without discrimination and have earlier eligibility for jobs in trucking, ride-sharing and delivery services. The OHRC calls on the Ontario government to ensure it identifies and removes all discriminatory barriers that prevent refugees from contributing fully to Ontario society, and is monitoring the implementation of the remedy in this case.


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Shanifa Nasser @shanifanasser
Ontario's human rights tribunal has removed a roadblock that required many refugees to wait one year before taking a driving test, keeping them from finding employment as drivers, and often forcing them to stay on social assistance longer.


Making sure poverty is not a crime

Laws that criminalize people who are poor for simply trying to survive have no place in Ontario. That’s why the OHRC is seeking to intervene in Fair Change v Ontario, a constitutional challenge to the Safe Streets Act being heard by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. The Safe Streets Act allows the police to ticket people for panhandling in certain circumstances.

The OHRC asked to intervene because the Safe Streets Act disproportionately affects people protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms who are either street-involved or homeless. Code-protected groups experience poverty at higher rates. These groups include First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, racialized people, persons living with mental health disabilities and/or addictions, women, and LGBTQ2+ youth.

If the Court permits the OHRC to intervene, we will argue that the Safe Streets Act violates equality rights and international law guarantees and cannot be justified as a reasonable limit on rights.

The OHRC previously advocated to repeal this Act. In June 2017, we wrote a letter to the Attorney General expressing concerns that the Act contributes to the stigma and disadvantage of homeless and street-involved people. It subjects this population to greater police surveillance, portrays them as criminal, a nuisance or dangerous, and as people to be feared by the public.

The impact of this law is harsh and broad. Many people who are ticketed accumulate fines that they are unable to pay because of poverty, which then entraps them in a cycle of repeated exposure to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some face imprisonment which, along with loss of liberty and other negative effects, results in them losing their social assistance and potentially their housing. This prevents people from transitioning out of street-involved life because significant outstanding fines and/or records of conviction pose barriers to securing housing or employment or committing to mental health and/or addiction treatment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities. The need to remove barriers for the most vulnerable people and to focus on solutions is long overdue. Such an approach is required to respect the rights of the people living with the highest poverty levels, and to make sure that all Ontarians can reach their full potential.


New call for accessible housing

For over a decade, the OHRC has stressed that housing providers are not solely responsible for respecting the right to accessibility. All levels of government, community planners and housing developers must promote disability rights by committing to universal design for any new housing construction. Accessible housing is not a panacea for eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities – instead, it is a critical step toward facilitating safety, security and independence.

In October 2020, the Chief Commissioner met with members of the Accessible Housing Network, to hear long-standing concerns about the lack of accessible housing in Ontario.

On November 22, National Housing Day, the Chief Commissioner wrote a statement that spotlighted the need for safe housing because Ontarians with disabilities have always lived with the harsh reality that their housing choices are extremely limited, chronically inaccessible and often substandard and unsafe.

The statement drew attention to how Ontarians with disabilities routinely face discriminatory screening practices by landlords and blanket refusals to retrofit accessibility features when accommodation needs arise. The statement also highlighted how people with disabilities are regularly forced to file legal claims simply to get landlords to remove barriers and build safer environments.

Following the National Housing Day statement, the Chief Commissioner corresponded with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on his commentary about the need for a greater mix in the supply of affordable housing. The Chief Commissioner noted the important need for affordable housing, particularly given the current housing crisis, and urged the Minister to take a human rights-based approach to the issues and make sure that Ontarians can secure both affordable and accessible housing.

The OHRC called on the government to amend Ontario’s Building Code Regulation to require all units in new construction or major renovation of multi-unit residences to fully meet universal accessibility standards. We also called on municipalities to prioritize universal design construction, consistent with their obligations under the Code. As well, we called on government and housing providers to work together to make sure that new developments are fully inclusive.

In his reply to the Chief Commissioner, the Minister noted that provinces and territories across Canada have committed to furthering the cross-country harmonization of technical requirements in construction codes. He also said that his Ministry would share the OHRC’s recommendations with the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) for consideration for adoption in the National Construction Codes. The Minister invited the OHRC to work with the Ministry’s Director of the Building and Development Branch to promote accessibility proposals with the Ministry and the CCBFC.


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Thea Kurdi ♿ @tkurdi
This is great news! There's nothing more #sustainable than #accessibility. #Visitable #adaptable #AccessibleHousing also helps our mental health initiatives as well as our #CRPD & #SDGs commitments. It also helps reduce pressure on LTC homes and #AgeInPlace options for all.


Direct payment rental agreements an issue in Sudbury

In a quote in a report on the Elliot Lake Today website, the President of the Greater Sudbury Landlord Association (GSLA) drew attention to landlords in Sudbury refusing to rent during the COVID-19 pandemic to people receiving Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW) benefits who do not agree to arrangements where ODSP and OW pay the landlords directly.

In July 2020, the OHRC wrote to the mayor of Greater Sudbury and the Greater Sudbury Landlord Association highlighting that these payment arrangements are considered voluntary unless an existing tenant/client is in arrears, and if that is the case, pay-direct arrangements should always be made in consultation with the tenant/client.

Given the vulnerability of tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic, the OHRC also reminded them of their human rights obligations relating to rental housing, as the housing service manager and OW administrator.

Under the Code, everyone has the right to equal treatment in housing, and landlords are responsible for making sure housing environments are free from discrimination and harassment. People cannot be refused an apartment, harassed by a housing provider or other tenants, or otherwise treated unfairly because of Code grounds, including the receipt of public assistance like ODSP and OW. The OHRC stressed that housing providers should adopt an individualized approach to implementing such an arrangement, and be mindful of a situation where a tenant’s circumstances may require flexibility.

The OHRC also talked about the importance of making sure that rental housing organizational rules, policies, procedures, decision-making processes and culture do not serve as barriers and do not have a discriminatory impact.


Media highlight


Adding our voice against an anti-loitering bylaw in Kenora

In July 2020, the OHRC learned that Kenora City Council was considering a proposed anti-loitering by-law. The bylaw would have given police the power to fine anyone loitering on public property $100, and would have likely disproportionally targeted people experiencing homelessness and addiction issues. Many of the most vulnerable people are Indigenous.

The OHRC joined the chorus of Grand Council Treaty #3 (GCT3), Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and other voices from the community by writing a public letter denouncing the proposed bylaw and encouraging the City of Kenora to work with local leaders to develop solutions that put the needs of Kenora’s vulnerable and marginalized population at the centre of decision-making. The OHRC also emphasized that an anti-loitering bylaw will not solve a homelessness crisis. What is instead required is real systemic change, such as increased housing and social supports developed in consultation with local service providers, Indigenous organizations and First Nations, with financial supports from higher levels of government.

The OHRC’s letter drew from our earlier work in Kenora – the 2019 Report and recommendations on homelessness in Kenora. This report said:

Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a culture shift in terms of how leaders and service providers understand and meet the needs of marginalized and vulnerable people who call Kenora home. It must start with accepting that all people are welcome in Kenora, and that all people are entitled to basic dignity and respect. At minimum, it requires understanding and accepting their lived experiences and developing solutions that put their needs at the centre of decision-making. Homelessness and addiction are difficult social problems, but they must be addressed directly and honestly. They cannot and will not be solved by pushing vulnerable people out of sight.

In July 2020, Kenora City Council overwhelmingly rejected the bylaw.


Media highlights


Addressing discrimination in a federal community housing program

In October 2020, a community legal clinic in York region approached the OHRC with concerns of discrimination against recipients of social assistance living in co-operative housing that was receiving funding from the new Federal Community Housing Initiative – phase 2 (FCHI-2). The federal program had been designed in such a way that people who received Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) where paying over and above their housing allowance on rent and housing related expenses. This was in violation of OW and ODSP rules and forcing social assistance recipients to use money on housing that would otherwise go to other essentials like food.

The OHRC reached out to the Housing Advocate's Office at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to propose collaborative action. In December 2020, the OHRC and the CHRC wrote a joint letter to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the program administrator, highlighting the concerns with how the FCHI-2 was affecting people receiving social assistance.

In March 2021, CMHC wrote back to the OHRC and CHRC to share changes that they had made to the FCHI-2 program to address the concerns. As of May 2021, people receiving social assistance would no longer be required to pay more than their OW and ODSP housing allowances towards rent and other housing related costs.  

This collaboration with the CHRC led to direct changes on the ground and will have a positive impact on the lives of many people who receive social assistance.


Poverty Advisory Group adds community focus to poverty work

In May 2020, the OHRC held its third Poverty Advisory Group (PAG) meeting. The OHRC shared updates on its COVID-19 work, poverty-related litigation in Fulton v Guan and Al-Turki v Ontario, as well as early thinking on an inquiry into poverty and human rights. Members shared insights into the concerning link between COVID-19 and poverty, and provided feedback on a possible OHRC inquiry.

At the fourth meeting, held in October 2020, members provided insight into COVID-19 and expressed diverse views on the OHRC’s revised proposal for an inquiry into social condition, COVID-19 and human rights. The proposal has since been revised and has received approval from OHRC Commissioners. In the coming months, staff will continue to seek guidance from advisory group members and plans to launch an initiative later this year.

Introducing the Poverty Advisory Group

  • Ena Chadha (Chair), OHRC
  • Mike Creek, Working for Change
  • Rhonda Huneault, Tungasuvvingat Inuit
  • Michael Kerr, Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change
  • Elisabeth McIsaac and Nevena Dragicevic, Maytree
  • Kwame McKenzie, Wellesley Institute
  • David McKillop, Legal Aid Ontario
  • Wendy Porch, Centre for Independent Living in Toronto
  • Bruce Porter, Social Rights Advocacy Centre
  • Jasmine Rezaee, YWCA Toronto
  • Douglas Varrette, Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto

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