International Human Rights Organizations Take On Government of Canada in Homelessness Case

Publish Date: 
Friday, May 23, 2014

ESCR-Net is appearing jointly with Amnesty International in an historic constitutional case in Canada, brought by individuals affected by widespread homelessness in that country. A rare three day hearing at the Court of Appeal for Ontario commences Monday May 26th  in Toronto.

The international human rights organizations are already at loggerheads with the Government of Canada, after Canada tried to prevent the Court from looking at critical recommendations from UN treaty bodies and records of commitments Canada has made to them.  In a preliminary judgment on the interventions, the Court ruled against the Government, permitting ESCR-Net to rely on concluding observations and summary records of UN treaty bodies. 

The documents in dispute are evidence of serious concerns raised by a range of UN treaty bodies and Special Rapporteurs about the absence of a national housing strategy to address homelessness and inadequate housing in Canada.  The UN Human Rights Committee has recognized that homelessness in Canada’s climate leads to serious health problems and even death and has stated that positive measures are required to address this problem in order for Canada to comply with the right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has repeatedly urged Canada to adopt a rights-based housing strategy with goals, timelines and monitoring and complaints procedures – precisely what is being demanded in this court case.  The previous UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, made the same urgent recommendation following a mission to Canada in 2008 in which he expressed shock at the extent of homelessness in so affluent a country.

Chris Grove, the Director of ESCR-Net, stated today: “While homelessness in Canada may not be as severe as in many developing countries, the fact that governments refuse to adequately address this human rights crisis in a country where there are abundant resources constitutes, in our view, an egregious violation of international human rights.  ESCR-Net is strongly committed to ensuring that all countries, including affluent ones like Canada, are held accountable for violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to adequate housing.”

The UN documents which the Government of Canada has tried to exclude from the hearing also demonstrate that Canada  has in fact assured UN Human Rights bodies that the Canadian Charter guarantees the right not to be deprived of basic necessities.  The Government of Canada now argues the opposite before the Court of Appeal, insisting that the Canadian Charter imposes no positive obligations on governments.  Jackie Dugard, a member of the Steering Committee of ESCR-Net’s Strategic Litigation Working Group and a prominent advocate for the right to adequate housing in South African said today: “We find it particularly disturbing that the Canadian Government is asking the court to find that the Canadian Charter imposes no obligations on governments in Canada to address homelessness or inadequate housing when they have explicitly told UN human rights bodies in the past that the right to life and security of the person in the Canadian Charter guarantee access to basic necessities including housing.   If these claimants are denied a hearing on the basis of the regressive arguments being advanced by the Government of Canada, this would give rise to serious concerns internationally about whether Canada is acting in good faith  and about whether courts in Canada are providing fair hearings into violations of fundamental rights of the most marginalized members of society.”

The written submissions of Amnesty International and ESCR-Net are available online at

The Government of Canada’s submissions and other documents are available at



Daniela Ikawa
Program Officer