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Human Rights Organizations Urge Court to Consider Canada’s International Human Rights Obligations in Charter Challenge to Homelessness

    May 27, 2013

    Amnesty International and the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) are appearing as interveners in an Ontario Court today in support of a precedent-setting Charter challenge to governments’ failures to adequately address the homelessness crisis in Canada.  The legal challenge is being brought by a number of individuals who have experienced the severe effects of homelessness and inadequate housing.  The applicants argue that their rights to life, to security of the person and to equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have been violated.

    “Widespread homelessness and inadequate housing in Canada has been identified by UN human rights bodies as one of the most serious violations of international human rights in Canada.  Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, women and children are particularly affected,” explained Alex Neve,  Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the primary vehicle through which Canada’s international human rights obligations are given effect in Canadian law. This case will be critical to ensuring that Canada complies with those international obligations by taking action to address homelessness and inadequate housing as a human rights crisis.” 

    United Nations human rights bodies have repeatedly urged Canadian governments to design and implement a national strategy to reduce homelessness, with clear goals and timelines.  This was a key recommendation which came out of Canada’s recent Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council.  “With continued government inaction, and the consequences of homelessness on health and life now well documented, there is a critical role to be played by courts in hearing from those affected, and ensuring that governments take action to protect fundamental human rights,”  Neve said.

    Chris Grove, the Executive Director of ESCR-Net, an international network of human rights organizations and advocates based in New York City, said that the Canadian case is being watched internationally and is seen as setting an important precedent with respect to the legal obligations of governments of more affluent countries.  “Courts in many southern countries have been playing an important role in providing a venue for marginalized groups to hold governments accountable to international human rights norms with respect to addressing homelessness and inadequate housing as a human rights issue,” Grove said.    “Courts in affluent countries such as Canada, where there is really no excuse for widespread homelessness, also have a critical role to play.  Under international human rights law, governments must take reasonable steps to ensure access to adequate housing, commensurate with available resources.  It would appear that Canada is in violation of international human rights norms in this respect.”

    In an attempt to prevent the case from proceeding to a hearing on the basis of extensive evidence filed by the applicants, the governments of Canada and Ontario have filed a motion to strike.  The motion will be heard on May 27 and 28th by the Honourable Justice Thomas Lederer of the Ontario Superior Court.

    “The Government of Canada has assured the United Nations that the Charter  provides critical protection of international human rights and that the right to life and security of the person ensures that no one can be deprived of access to basic necessities, including housing.  Yet now the Government appears to be asking the court to accept that the Charter imposes no obligations on governments to do anything about homelessness.   We will be urging the court to allow this case to proceed to a full hearing on the evidence, so that these critical issues can be properly assessed on the basis of full argument and evidence,” Neve said.

    Amnesty International and ESCR-Net will be represented by lawyers from Toronto law firm Tory’s LLP.

    For further information, please contact:
    Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations  
    416-363-9933 ext 332 email: bberton-hunter@amnesty.ca