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Fighting the housing crisis and poverty through local collaboration and a human rights-based approach

While the outside world may see Canada as one of the best places to live, and it may be for some, this is not the case for everyone.

PHOTO: Stock
Michael Alberg-Seberich, Managing Director of Wider Sense, a consultancy in Germany specializing in corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, and social investment, speaks to Maytree president Elizabeth McIsaac.

MichaelElizabeth, the issue of human rights is central to Maytree. Canada is seen as a shining example in many other countries in this regard. Why is it still so important for you to be engaged?

Elizabeth: While the outside world may see Canada as one of the best places to live, and it may be for some, this is not the case for everyone. Many people in Canada continue to be excluded from the opportunities that others see, and from the enjoyment of a life of dignity. Indigenous, Black, and other racialized people, as well as women, people with disabilities, and others experience poverty and deep poverty at unacceptable levels. Maytree understands this poverty as systemic and the direct result of decisions taken by our governments.

In 2014, we made a strategic decision to take a human rights-based approach to our work to find solutions to poverty. We believe this approach provides a strong framework for fulfilling the right to a life with dignity for every person in Canada.

Canada enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, a powerful tool for protecting the rights of individuals within our constitution. But the Charter has not been as explicit about social and economic rights as it has with civil and political rights. This means we have real work to do to “make human rights whole,” as Madam Justice Louise Arbour has described it, to recognize the interdependent nature of these rights, and the need for all human rights to be fully realized.

This is the work that we have chosen to pursue – to advance the realization of social and economic rights in Canada by working to change the collective decisions we make as a society that create poverty.

MichaelWhat areas do you focus on in your human rights work?

Elizabeth: Housing and income security are two key areas of focus that have emerged for Maytree. In our view, these are the social protections that provide the foundation for dignity and opportunity in people’s lives.

Increasingly, we are also exploring other areas where we see poverty being created. Clearly, there are many more dimensions that are connected. We’re supporting work around employment rights, education as a human right, and food security. Most recently, we’ve been exploring how experiences with the criminal justice system create and are created by poverty.

Of course, the challenge in all of this is finding the meaningful levers for change. So, we have also devoted significant attention to how we do the work – what does a human rights-based approach mean for a foundation and what does it look like?

This is an area of ongoing learning and a critical part of finding meaningful solutions.

MichaelPolicy change appears to be an essential aim of Maytree’s work. Can you give us a concrete example of engagement on the policy level?

Elizabeth: The development of a National Housing Strategy Act in 2019 was a key area of focus for Maytree, across all of our work. We worked with communities and individuals with lived experience of homelessness and housing precarity to bring their expertise into the policy processes. We engaged political and public service actors to build understanding of the value of recognizing housing as a human right. We supported the development of proposed content for the legislation. And we funded the development of policy options through a national collaborative of community and private sector actors.

The result was legislation that recognizes housing as a human right and establishes new institutional architecture for the implementation of this commitment. This is the first legislation of its kind in Canada. Now the work continues as we monitor the implementation of the Act and hold government accountable to the commitments it has made.

MichaelYour funding guidelines state that Maytree funds initiatives that “Strengthen the connections among civic communities, people with lived experience, and institutions to address poverty and build a culture of rights.” Building bridges between these actors doesn’t sound easy. What does this look like in practice?

Elizabeth: We believe that it is critical for people to be able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives – this is core to our understanding of a human rights approach. In practice, this means being able to build relationships, organize, and advocate for change.

In some cases, this looks like supporting residents to organize around issues with their landlords or to advocate for better public transit. In other cases, it can mean supporting broader networks of civil society organizations and people with lived experience to work together to make change happen.

A good example would be the Right to Housing Toronto network, which Maytree has both funded and participated in. This network was instrumental in engaging communities in the development of the City of Toronto’s ten-year housing plan and helping to shape the content of the plan in which the City committed to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate housing.

MichaelLooking back at Maytree’s long track record in connecting people, can you think of three lessons about collaboration in civil society and beyond?

Elizabeth: First, find areas of mutual benefit – partnerships and collaborations work when there is shared purpose and also real benefit to each player around the table. Second, take time and build trust – collaborations and partnerships take time and trust, and both are essential investments. And, third, acknowledge where the power is – and address it head on.

MichaelCan you share with other foundations something you have learned from your work?

Elizabeth: In working to change the policy on multi-tenant houses in Toronto, Maytree funded a number of different community organizations to do the research on the economics and availability of this deeply affordable housing option and the impact on different communities, and to organize with communities and residents around the issue. We were also asked by the City of Toronto to work with its staff to develop a human rights review of the proposed policy.

The community engagement, the process, and the resulting proposed policy were important steps forward and successful by some measures. We demonstrated to municipal officials the value of taking a human rights approach to developing policy, and that it was not an abstract or cumbersome process. We hope this will encourage the City to apply human rights-based approaches to future policy development.

However, the policy was not approved by City Council, in large part due to the political pressures of NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard,” is a phrase that refers to when people do not want something in their own neighbourhood). It was a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go to build the strong and widespread culture of human rights that we need to effectively protect social and economic rights. Local city councillors did not believe their constituents supported this kind of affordable housing for people living in poverty. We need to work on building this culture of human rights, in part because strengthening public support might push politicians to act.

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The interview was originally published in March 2022 in the German magazine “Stiftung & Sponsoring.”


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