Closing the Door on Homeless People?

Homelessness in a country as wealthy as Canada is dire. Each year approximately 230,000 people are homeless and the United Nations has called homelessness in Canada a ‘national emergency’.

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) said ‘no’ to hearing a case about the Charter rights of homeless people. What is this case about? What message does the decision send?

Here are our thoughts on this decision and what happens now.

1)      What is this case about?

The case is based on a claim by four individuals and one institutional applicant who argue that federal and provincial (Ontario) governments have violated their obligations under international human rights law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter).

Here’s a simple way of breaking that down: four people with lived experience of poverty (and one organization) claimed that by not having national or provincial housing strategies in place, the governments have violated their Charter obligations to promote and protect the right to life for the most vulnerable populations in Canada. They also argued that the lack of a national housing strategy has lead to gross inequality with respect to housing and that all of this constitutes a violation of the Charter and international human rights law.

The federal government and provincial government of Ontario responded to this case with a vengeance by asking that it not be heard in court at all. Unfortunately, today, they won. Despite 9,000 pages of evidence, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that there shall be no hearing for the homeless claimants: no court, no claims, no access to justice.

People living in poverty have not only been pushed out of the room, they have been forced out of the building.

2)      What message has the Supreme Court sent to homeless people in Canada?

Having been forced out of the building, it seems like the SCC is locking the door. The SCC did not provide reasons for dismissing the case. They do not explain why the rights claims of homeless people cannot be heard in court.

This begs the question: where exactly in Canada, and through what mechanism, can poor and homeless people have their rights heard? It is bad enough when elected representatives won’t listen and act, but when the courts lock the door they deny access to justice and the democratic process.

3)      What happens now?

At CWP, we believe that this is not the end of the road for those who are homeless to use the courts to protect their rights.

It is possible to move this case forward through international mechanisms. While there is no international court to hear such claims, there may be other international opportunities available. CWP and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre are bringing this issue to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva in July when Canada’s civil and political human rights record is reviewed.

The Supreme Court’s decision in no way precludes others experiencing homelessness and inadequate housing from using the courts and the Charter to assert their rights.

And CWP’s Executive Director, in her capacity as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, is reviewing her options on how she might use the international system to help advance the rights of those who are homeless in Canada.

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