Too rarely do we have the opportunity to debate a housing bill in depth. I thank my colleague for choosing to debate this bill today and for giving us a chance to advocate for housing rights here in the House.
When I was made my party's housing critic, I launched a campaign called A Roof, A Right, which I have promoted all across Canada because I strongly believe that housing is a basic right and should be treated as such.
To put things in context, Canadian law differs from that of some other countries in that, for an international treaty to be law and enforceable in Canada, it must be incorporated into our legislation. Simply ratifying an international treaty does not mean that the content of that treaty becomes part of Canadian law. True, by ratifying a treaty, Canada makes an international commitment, but that is all. The rights that Canada commits to recognizing by ratifying a treaty cannot be enforced in Canadian courts unless those rights appear in Canadian law.
This bill seeks to address this unacceptable situation by adding the right to housing to Canadian legislation. In 1976, Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or ICESCR, which obliges nations to take appropriate steps to ensure “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” In doing so, signatory states made a commitment not only to formally recognize the right to housing, but also to remove barriers to achieving that.
Here we are more than 40 years later, and unfortunately there is no federal legislation that formally recognizes the right to housing in Canada. On top of that, the housing situation in various regions of the country clearly shows that the federal government has not taken any meaningful action to remove barriers to housing and to the full exercise and realization of that right. This is precisely the reason why Canada has been chastised repeatedly by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for failing to take appropriate action on housing.
In its observations adopted on March 4, 2016, not so long ago, the committee stated the following regarding the housing situation in Canada:
The Committee is concerned about the persistence of a housing crisis in the State party. It is particularly concerned at: (a) the absence of a national housing strategy; (b) the insufficient funding for housing; (c) the inadequate housing subsidy within the social assistance benefit; (d) the shortage of social housing units; and (e) increased evictions related to rental arrears.
The committee also recommended that Canada develop and effectively implement a human-rights based national strategy on housing. It made a list of recommendations in light of its observations on the right to adequate housing and on forced evictions.
Last week, my colleague from North Island—Powell River received a response to written question Q-1086 in which she asked the government, “Why has Canada never formally incorporated the international covenants on the right to housing”?
The government's response was absolutely unbelievable:
Canada currently answers to its obligation to ensure the right to adequate housing, as it is framed in international law. The United Nations ICESCR recognizes the right to adequate housing as a component of an adequate standard of living. Canada currently implements the right through a wide range of federal, provincial, territorial and municipal laws, policies, programs, and administrative measures.
In light of the observations by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that I just mentioned, I do not understand how the government can claim to be meeting its international obligations. If the government wants to claim that it is being compliant, then it has a responsibility to incorporate the right to housing into the Canadian Human Rights Act, and especially to implement the necessary measures to ensure that the fundamental right to housing is fully realized.
The current housing situation in Canada clearly shows that since the ICESCR was ratified, successive governments never took the steps required to eliminate the obstacles preventing the full implementation of that basic right.
We have been hearing for years about a housing crisis in Canada. Rising rents, a shortage of rental housing units, the lack of federal government funding for social housing, too many families spending over 30% of their income on housing, and increasing homelessness are only a few examples of the causes and consequences of that crisis.
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC, housing is considered affordable if it represents 30% or less of a household's revenue. Households that spend more on housing are considered to be in “core housing need”.
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, one out of four households spend more than 30% of their total revenue on housing costs. Also, one out of three Canadian households are renters, and of this number, 40%—almost half—spend over 30% of their income on rent.
The proportion of income spent on housing is over 50% for one out of five Canadians, and over 80% for one out of ten Canadians.
This means that households in “core housing need” are too often forced to choose which basic needs they will meet.
In a wealthy country like ours, no one should have to choose between buying groceries and paying rent. We must admit that we are unfortunately not respecting a person's right to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, as set out in the ICESCR.
The government must release the details of its national housing strategy this fall. If it wants to show that it is serious and ensure that this strategy will be successful in the long term, the government's measures must give everyone the opportunity to fully exercise and enjoy their right to housing.
Bill C-325 is a first step towards ensuring that Canada fulfills its international commitments by enshrining the right to housing in Canadian legislation. The bill would amend section 1 of the Canadian Bill of Rights by adding paragraph (b.1) the right of the individual to proper housing, at a reasonable cost and free of unreasonable barriers.
Because the Canadian Bill of Rights takes precedence over all other federal laws, it would offer a means of recourse to any person who feels their right to proper housing has been infringed by the federal government.
Consider the example of an indigenous family of 10 living in a two-bedroom home, which is the reality on too many reserves. I think we can assume that their right to proper housing is being infringed, so they could use this recourse to assert their rights, particularly since the federal government already has a fiduciary duty to indigenous peoples.
Given that the Supreme Court also decided last year in Daniels that indigenous peoples living off-reserve are also “Indians” under subsection 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, it is also the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that their right to housing is respected.
That is why, a few days ago, I joined the member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association in calling for a targeted strategy to tackle the indigenous housing crisis.
Right now, 10% of Canadian renters are spending more than 80% of their income on rent. It is easy to imagine that any of these renters could invoke their right to housing at a reasonable cost and require the government to take the necessary steps to fulfill that right.
There is also the matter of the homelessness rate. In this country, it is estimated that more than 235,000 people experience homelessness in a given year. Any of them could potentially seek recourse under this bill to make the federal government do whatever it takes to ensure that every person in Canada has a roof over their head. The Liberal government has told Canadians all about its good intentions on the housing issue. Now it is time it turned words into action.
If the government wants to show that it is serious about keeping all of those promises, why does it not start by recognizing the right of every person to housing? On that note, I would urge my colleagues on both sides of the House to vote in favour of this bill and finally acknowledge once and for all that a roof is a right.