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Repeal of Safe Streets Act, 1999: OHRC letter to Attorney General Naqvi

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June 21, 2017

Hon. Yasir Naqvi
Attorney General
McMurtry-Scott Building, 11th Floor
720 Bay Street
Toronto, ON M7A 2S9

Dear Minister Naqvi:

Re: Repeal of Safe Streets Act, SO 1999

I hope this finds you well. In our strategic plan, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) committed to using our mandate and powers to advance human rights by making clear how systemic discrimination causes and sustains poverty. To that end, we are writing today to urge the government to repeal the Safe Streets Act.

The OHRC welcomes the government’s goal of reducing poverty among all Ontarians, with a particular focus on addressing the unique needs of urban Indigenous people. However, we believe that the government must also make sure that its laws and policies do not further stigmatize people who experience poverty or inadvertently make it more difficult for them to access secure housing and employment. Unfortunately, the Safe Streets Act does both. 

Rather than promoting public safety, the Safe Streets Act criminalizes people for being poor. It perpetuates stigma against street involved and homeless people by portraying them as criminal, a nuisance or people appropriately feared by the rest of the public. It subjects them to greater police surveillance, fines and imprisonment. Many of those who are ticketed accumulate fines they are not in a position to pay. Some face imprisonment which, along with loss of liberty and other negative effects, results in the loss of their social assistance and potentially their housing. This unnecessary and disproportionate punishment creates additional barriers for an already disadvantaged group, especially when other laws exist to address conduct that raises legitimate public safety concerns.

The Safe Street Act also poses barriers to people who wish to transition out of street involved life because significant outstanding fines and/or records of conviction pose a barrier to securing housing or employment or committing to mental health and/or addiction treatment.

The Safe Streets Act disproportionately impacts people protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code) and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter) who are either street involved or homeless. The Ontario government has acknowledged the connection between poverty and membership in a Code-protected group in subsection 2.2(3) of the Poverty Reduction Act, SO 2009, c 10 which recognizes the principle:

That not all groups of people share the same level of risk of poverty.  The poverty reduction strategy must recognize the heightened risk among groups such as immigrants, women, single mothers, people with disabilities, aboriginal peoples and racialized groups.

Code-protected communities disproportionately experience poverty. In almost every city, First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit peoples are over-represented in the homeless population. Persons with mental health disabilities and/or addictions, women, older persons, children and youth, transgender people and racialized communities face particular dynamics of marginalization. Often these grounds intersect to produce unique and compounded forms of discrimination for people living in poverty.

The OHRC knows the government wishes to spend money where it measurably improves the lives of people living in poverty and to make evidence-based decisions. The Safe Streets Act focuses on the symptoms of homelessness rather than underlying causes such as the need for access to affordable housing, adequate income, education and employment opportunities and necessary supports for those dealing with mental health disabilities and addictions.

The Ontario government has the power to eliminate one of the unnecessary burdens faced by those living in poverty and take a step towards reconciliation by repealing the Safe Streets Act.

Thank you for considering this matter. If you wish to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact me.  In keeping with the OHRC’s commitment to public accountability and its duties in serving the people of Ontario, this letter will be made public.

Yours sincerely,

Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M.
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission

cc:       OHRC Commissioners