Canada recognizes housing as a human right. Few provinces have followed suit

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — As more Canadians find themselves struggling to afford or find housing, the country’s smallest province is the only one that can point to legislation recognizing housing as a human right.

The Canadian Press asked every province whether it agrees with the federal housing advocate that shelter is a human right, and if it intends to introduce legislation upholding that right.

Most did not answer the questions directly and responded with a laundry list of initiatives launched to address the housing crises brewing in their jurisdictions.

When prodded a second time for a response, a spokesperson for Quebec’s housing minister mistakenly sent a reply intended for a government colleague, asking whether she should continue to "ghost" the reporter.

Manitoba said it recognizes "Canada’s rights−based approach to housing," and Newfoundland and Labrador said it agrees with federal and international law recognizing housing as a human right.

Prince Edward Island responded with a link to its Residential Tenancy Act, whose first line acknowledges that Canada has a signed United Nations’ treaty affirming housing as a human right — though critics point out there is nothing in the act upholding that right.

The federal housing advocate urged every province to adopt legislation recognizing housing as a human right in her report on homeless encampments released on Feb. 13.

Marie−Josée Houle wondered in an interview if provinces just don’t understand what it would mean to make it explicit that they viewed housing as a human right.

Houle says that according to the bilateral agreement they all signed under the National Housing Strategy in 2018, that would mean that they take a "human rights−based approach to housing."

She says that includes meeting with and listening to people without homes and focusing on getting them housing that meets their needs, rather than deciding what’s best for homeless people without their input and forcing them into stopgap measures, such as shelters, that they don’t want to live in.

It also includes providing heat, electricity and bathrooms for people living in homeless encampments if adequate housing is not available, she says.

Essentially, it’s a commitment to work from the recognition that homelessness is a systemic issue and people are homeless because governments of all levels have failed them, Houle says.

To the provinces, she said: "We need all players at the table."

Dale Whitmore with the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights says provinces could take a simple first step toward recognizing and upholding housing as a human right by adding a clause to their tenancies act saying that eviction is treated as an absolute last resort.

Whitmore says it is critical for provinces to follow Houle’s directives and enact legislation recognizing and upholding housing as a human right. The rules must do both, he added, noting that while P.E.I.’s tenancy act recognizes the right, it offers nothing to uphold it.

"We need rent regulation that keeps rents affordable and protects tenants against unreasonable and excessive rents, and we need eviction protections to stop people from losing their homes because of unaffordable rents," he said in an interview. "As the housing crisis continues to worsen, we’re only going to need those things more."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2024.

The Canadian Press