Assuring Housing Rights in Canada: Development and Action with Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act

by Jayne Malenfant, McGill University, Montréal, Canada


As of 2019, Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) commits our government to the progressive realization of the right to housing. The Act ties access to housing to broader social, economic, health, and environmental goals and human rights, nationally and internationally. Highlighting community knowledge as integral to addressing housing rights, the NHSA must “provide for participatory processes to ensure the ongoing inclusion and engagement of civil society, stakeholders, vulnerable groups and persons with lived experience of housing need, as well as those with lived experience of homelessness.” This is supported by the development of advocacy and review bodies, namely the Federal Housing Advocate and the National Housing Council (NHC). Our current Federal Housing Advocate, Marie-Josée Houle, was appointed in 2022. She is supported by the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA), and holds the role of making recommendations to government, monitoring housing rights across Canada, amplifying community voices, and engaging diverse participation on housing issues. The NHC monitors implementation of the NHSA, including review panels where communities can share testimonies on the state of housing rights in Canada, and is intended to be representative of diverse stakeholders, including people with lived experience of housing rights violations. Recommendations are ultimately made to the Canadian Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development, who has an obligation to respond in 120 days of the report. This process provides potential ways forward for rights claimants to actively shape and work with advocates to push for the right to adequate housing—housing that is secure, affordable, habitable, accessible, culturally appropriate, and with access to basic services and supports.


Within the settler-colonial Canadian context, the NHSA must also attend to the State’s purported commitments to Reconciliation, considering the rights outlined in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action and reports on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People. Further, the OFHA aims to prioritize focusing advocacy and engagement with communities deemed to be in the greatest housing need, including people experiencing homelessness, Indigenous people, those fleeing domestic violence, seniors, 2SLGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, veterans, youth, racialized groups, and newcomers to Canada. Adequate housing which provides freedom from experiences of discrimination for these communities has been a focus of much of the OFHA’s work to date. Communities most impacted by housing precarity in Canada, including people with lived and living experience of homelessness, have critiqued housing advocacy and research in Canada for inadequately engaging with lived experience meaningfully and with care. A review commissioned by the NHC in 2022 highlighted the need for the participatory processes outlined in the NHSA to address both the lack of “deep” engagement with communities facing housing precarity, and the underrepresentation of the experiences of those prioritized as in greatest housing need—particularly those with disabilities, elders, Black Canadians, and the 2SLTBQIA+ community. There is hope that testimonies and labour of those with direct knowledge of housing rights violations will not mirror experiences where recommendations sit on a shelf, but will contribute tangibly to the right to housing for all.


So, what does this process look like in action? In June of 2022, the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network and the National Indigenous Women’s Housing Network requested a review into the denial of equal rights for women and gender-diverse people in Canada. The authors, a team of primarily women and gender-diverse people, represent researchers, advocates, community leaders, practitioners, and people with lived experience from across Canada. Engaging diverse knowledge, research, and testimony, the request highlights key failures for assuring the right to housing in Canada: failure to provide adequate, accessible, and affordable housing, to act on homelessness for this population, and to regulate the financialization of housing—with an emphasis on the impact for Indigenous women and Two-spirit/gender-diverse people. In May of 2023, the FHA officially requested the NHC launch a review panel into the failure to eliminate homelessness amongst women and gender-diverse people. This review panel provides the opportunity to testify and contribute to recommendations for addressing this failure. This is being undertaken in addition to the NHC’s first review panel on Financialization of Purpose-Built Housing, and the FHA’s review on homelessness encampments as major housing rights violations in Canada. For many who feel their experiences have been invisibilized, the opportunity to shape housing rights with testimony is powerful, in itself. While this work to enact the right to housing in Canada is still emergent, for Canadians who have long been fighting for housing rights, the NHSA provides promising potential for ways forward—that are grounded in knowledge from those most impacted, and show real action.


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