02/18/2016 02:39 EST | Updated 02/18/2017 05:12 EST

Activists Using UN To Pressure Trudeau On Affordable Housing, Social Justice

TORONTO — Activists from across the country are planning to use a United Nations review in Geneva next week to highlight what they see as Canada's lack of action on affordable housing, access to justice and other social issues.

The 30 groups will be making presentations as the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights does its 10-year assessment of how the country is living up to its international obligations.

In a written submission to the reviewing panel of 18 independent experts, the Right to Housing Coalition argues Canada should define affordable housing as 30 per cent or less of household income.

The coalition also wants Ottawa to develop and implement a national housing strategy, with special emphasis on housing for vulnerable and marginalized communities.

"We've seen recently that the prime minister and other ministers are trying to make a better impression on the international community, particularly on the United Nations."

While the issues are long-standing, the groups see reason for optimism in what they see as the new Liberal government's desire to distance itself from its Conservative predecessor.

"We've seen recently that the prime minister and other ministers are trying to make a better impression on the international community, particularly on the United Nations," said Kenneth Hale, with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, who will be speaking to the committee.

"[So] there's optimism but there's also a recognition that there's a lot of competing demands out there on the new federal government."

A few years ago, the housing coalition launched a legal battle aimed at having the courts affirm the right to adequate housing as a constitutional right. The merits of the case were never tested because the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in a split decision in December 2014 that the issue was political rather than legal and the courts therefore had no jurisdiction.

Photo gallery Canada's Homeless See Gallery

However, the dissenting justice argued the case should have been heard on its merits given the issues many people face both in accessing the justice system and the importance of affordable housing to their lives and well-being. The case died when the Supreme Court refused to weigh in.

The coalition sees next week's review as a logical extension to the failed court battle.

"Canada must ensure access to justice for marginalized groups," the submission states. "We urge Canada to allow individuals and organizations to claim social and economic rights before courts and tribunals on full evidentiary records."

Other recommendations include pressing provincial and municipal governments to ensure new developments include a percentage of affordable-housing units and to do what they can to devise strategies to prevent evictions and homelessness.

UN Criticized Canada On Homelessness, Indigenous Issues

In the last review in 2006, the UN committee rapped Canada for failing to live up to its commitments under the convention with respect to issues such as poverty, homelessness and indigenous migrant rights.

Other groups, such as Amnesty International, the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society and le Front d’action populaire en reamenagement urbain in Quebec will all be making submissions.

In a joint statement, Amnesty and two other groups said they hoped the Liberal government will be paying close attention to the committee's report, noting without proper access to justice, the Charter of Rights has little value.

"Disadvantaged groups should have access to the courts in Canada to make these kinds of claims on social issues — at least to have those cases be heard and not be struck down by the courts without giving people a chance to actually present their cases," Hale said.

"So, we're hoping that the committee will make some recommendations that will be followed about access to justice on social issues."

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