Canada’s Supreme Court turns down Charter challenge on right to housing

By Tracy Heffernan

The Supreme Court of Canada has refused the most vulnerable people in our society the opportunity to have their claims that the government is violating their human rights heard in court.

Shocking, but true.

The court decision

On June 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Charter challenge holding governments responsible for the crisis in affordable housing and homelessness will never be heard in Canadian courts.

With no evidence before them, two out of three judges at the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a controversial lower court decision that issues of homelessness do not belong in the courtroom. The Supreme Court decision affirms this ruling and brings to a close the five-year wait by homeless and precariously housed applicants to have 10,000 pages of evidence detailing the impact of homelessness on hundreds of thousands of people across the country presented to the court.

The reality

In the meantime, the housing crisis continues to worsen in Canada. Over the past five years, Ontario’s affordable housing waiting list has ballooned to 168,711 households, the Federal government has announced the revocation of 365,000 housing subsidies for low income households across the country, and the cost of keeping people homeless has continued to skyrocket. It is currently estimated at $7 billion annually.

If the measure of a society is how we treat our most vulnerable, we are failing miserably. For 48 years, Canada was a world leader in ensuring that all Canadians had access to safe affordable housing. Had the government not turned its back on Aboriginal peoples, seniors, people who have mental and physical disabilities, youth, and all those who have difficulty accessing housing due to their race, we would not have the crisis that we do today. But the Court has also sent a clear signal to government: it is time to step up and take action to address this national emergency.

Still pushing hard to change the conversation about housing in Canada

Although the Supreme Court can silence us on the legal front, they cannot do so in the political realm. A coalition of groups across Ontario and Canada are pushing, hard, to change the conversation about housing in Canada and put it squarely on the political agenda. Slowly but surely we’re starting to see success: people across the country are talking about the crisis in affordable housing and the need for a national housing strategy. We will continue to press the government for change. We’ll also consider whether to take the case to an international forum.

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Tracy Heffernan was co-counsel in Tanudjaja v. Canada and program director at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. Her centre organized the Right to Housing Coalition of people from many backgrounds and expertise, including people with lived experience of homelessness or of being inadequately housed, community organizations, advocacy groups and academics.