12/11/2014 08:37 EST | Updated 02/10/2015 05:59 EST

The Ontario Courts Should Learn Shelter Is a Basic Need

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On December 1, the Ontario Court of Appeal failed Canadians who are homeless or living in substandard conditions. By ruling that the Government of Canada has no obligation to provide "affordable, adequate, and accessible housing" to its citizens, the Court sanctioned the government's abdication of responsibility for housing and dealt a significant blow to vulnerable Canadians.

In her dissent, Justice Kathryn N. Feldman recognized that the case was brought forward on behalf of "a large, marginalized, vulnerable and disadvantaged group" and that it raised "issues that are basic to their life and well-being." A safe and secure home is a basic human need that is denied to tens of thousands of Canadians every year.

In its decision, the Court followed the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians "security of the person," but the Court chose not to interpret a home as prerequisite for security. There are several federal programs, such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, which recognize that some vulnerable Canadians need help meeting their basic needs. There is no Charter-protected right to income, but we do not object to ensuring their security and an adequate standard of living based on the fact that it is not explicitly enshrined. Why, then, is it acceptable to deny Canadians of all ages the right to a suitable and affordable home?

Through this case, the appellants hoped to compel the federal government to take action after decades of policy neglect. An affordable home is a necessary first step to tackling poverty, but the silence of governments has helped ensnare Canadians in poverty. The province's new Poverty Reduction Strategy recognizes the importance of housing and is a positive first step to help children, families and seniors to achieve their full potential. Much more work, however, is needed.

As Canadians, we have come to accept that the private sector will prioritize customers and elected officials will prioritize their voter base. We depended on the courts to help protect our communities' most vulnerable people -- in light of this decision, where shall they turn?


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