OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are using their omnibus budget bill to legislate a "right to housing" in Canada, a pledge advocates worry could fall short of being the historic step the government wants without a few parliamentary tweaks before summer.
The budget bill would set into law rules for the Liberals' 10-year national housing strategy, now valued at more than $55 billion, impose those rules on future governments and create two new oversight bodies meant to make sure the spending reduces homelessness.
A national housing council is to advise the government on the effects of the strategy and a new housing advocate, tied to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is to report annually on systemic issues preventing Canadians from finding affordable and safe places to live.
Reports would also be required every three years on how well the strategy is meeting national goals and furthering "the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing" — wording that mirrors international standards.
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In each case, the minister in charge of the strategy would have to "reply and act" on the reports, said Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, "which will ensure there is sufficient pressure on the federal government to meet the legislated right to housing."
Characterizing housing as a human right is meant to provide recourse, usually through tribunals, to anyone wrongfully denied a home for reasons such as ethnicity, religion, or gender identity, and put pressure on the federal government to help make the right a reality.
"The federal government has admitted to having an obligation when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable of Canadians," Duclos said in an interview Wednesday. "There will always need to be a continuing conversation (and) that's exactly what the bill says — the national housing strategy will need to evolve, but I think we've made major steps in very little time."
The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing said wording in the budget bill is a big step forward and addresses a long-running concern from the international body.
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But Leilani Farha said her chief concern is that having an advocate "hot-desking" at the human-rights commission and filing annual reports "doesn't amount to human-rights accountability by any measure."
"The government needs to strengthen the role of the advocate so that they can appoint panels to hear systemic housing-related claims and recommend remedies," said the Canadian-based Farha.
"And the government can't be allowed to just ignore recommendations. If the legislation is strengthened in this way, then Canada would not just be in compliance with its international human rights obligations, it might also be a model for other countries."
The Liberals have been looking into setting the right to housing into law since early in their mandate, when they met with housing advocates about ways to pump more money into affordable housing.
What followed, though, was a debate among officials in Duclos's Department of Employment and Social Development Canada and their counterparts in the Finance and Justice departments over how far the government could go in its wording, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The federal government has admitted to having an obligation when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable of Canadians.Jean-Yves Duclos
As time wore on, housing advocates became concerned about whether the government would have time to pass a law before the next election.
Putting the housing law into the budget bill is a tacit acknowledgment that time was running short. Inside the budget bill, it is practically assured passage by the summer.
Now, groups plan to lobby MPs for amendments to give the new housing council greater powers to critique government progress on the strategy and allow the advocate to refer issues to the human-rights tribunal for public hearings.
In a post to members, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness said "the government got a lot right" on housing in the budget bill, but the legislation lacks "important elements of a workable, rights-based accountability framework that would ensure that the housing strategy is effective."
Also in the budget bill is the government's poverty-reduction law, which was part of a separate bill introduced in early November that hasn't been debated since the end of that month.