Performative Politics and the Persistence of Poverty in Canada
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified housing insecurity in Canada. For many, evictions are an ever present fear and unhoused individuals are forced further into the margins of society by shelter closures and curfew measures. It has become increasingly apparent that Canada has a housing insecurity problem, and little is being done about it despite politicians consistently telling the public that housing is a top priority. This appears to be a trend. The Canadian Government only talks of caring for its citizens, and discusses intermittently the possibility of one day solving poverty. Yet, nothing changes.
In 2019, the Canadian Federal Government passed The National Housing Strategy Act which legally recognizes a human right to housing. This is the first time the Canadian government has explicitly acknowledged their positive obligation to uphold their international commitment to protecting socio-economic rights. This acknowledges systemic housing issues and the government’s obligation to ensure safe and affordable housing, which advocates may use to further push for social housing initiatives. However, the bill does not make clear how exactly housing rights will be enforced and without a clear plan to end housing insecurity in Canada, one may question whether this bill is merely n performative.
Indeed, the bill begins by declaring the Canadian Government’s commitment to recognizing the human right to housing and the importance of housing in the enjoyment of other fundamental rights, such as the right to safeguard one’s dignity. It does not go much further than this. The Strategy set forth in the Bill is vague and distant, alluding to making future plans to eradicate housing insecurity in Canada. The strategy does not outline any semblance of a plan of action , only the aspiration to one day have an outcome. It is laid out in section 5.2 as such:
“The National Housing Strategy is to, among other things,
(a) set out a long-term vision for housing in Canada that recognizes the importance of housing in achieving social, economic, health and environmental goals;
(b) establish national goals relating to housing and homelessness and identify related priorities, initiatives, timelines and desired outcomes;
(c) focus on improving housing outcomes for persons in greatest need; and
(d) 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.”
While these declarations are precisely what the Canadian government should be recognizing in its housing plan, they are by no means a well thought out, tangible outline.. Beyond this, the bill makes no mention on how any of these aspirations will be achieved or by whom. The bill does not put any concrete positive obligations on the Federal or the Provincial Governments, nor does it provide an avenue for individuals to seek redress for harms suffered by housing insecurity. While representing a legal document, the bill does not provide any legal direction. It is incomplete, and one cannot help but wonder whether this is because the bill is not meant to actually reduce socioeconomic insecurities in Canada. As it stands, the bill represents an acknowledgement of the importance of ending poverty in Canada, and states that there will be a plan to end poverty; however, without a concrete strategy, the existence of this bill may simply push the discussion further and further away,. The bill can be used to quell outrage over the housing crisis by creating the illusion that there is progress being made, without any actual steps being taken toward progress.
The performative nature of the bill is of particular concern given Canada’s history of pledging allegiance to the human rights doctrine and championing the protection of rights internationally , while simultaneously failing to protect these same rights nationally. Time and again, Canadian politicians have acknowledged the human right to housing in developing countries while their own citizens are continuously forced into the streets by increasingly hostile neoliberal welfare cuts. Time and again, international monitoring bodies have questioned Canada’s housing policy amidst the ever worsening housing crisis, urging Canada to do better and to uphold their international obligations. And time and again, the Canadian government ignores these recommendations.
Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976. This Covenant outlines socioeconomic human rights, including the right to adequate housing. By ratifying this piece of international law, Canada accepted its tenets and took on an obligation to uphold the standard set forth within the Covenant. However, international law is in and of itself not enforceable domestically unless it is incorporated into domestic law. Canada has failed to do this, despite consistently proclaiming a commitment to upholding the values set forth in the ICESCR. In fact, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which oversees the degree to which each signatory of the ICESCR is upholding their international obligation, has criticized Canada on numerous occasions for failing to combat poverty domestically. Time and again, the CESCR has provided Canada with recommendations on how to fulfill their obligations, and time and again Canada does the exact opposite.
For example, in 1994, the International Monetary Fund wrote to Canada’s Finance Minister, encouraging several severe cuts in social housing and welfare programs. Each IMF recommendation was in direct contradiction to those of the CESCR, yet Canada ignored the CESCR and implemented the IMF’s harsh neoliberal measures, including the recommendation to revoke the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) in favor of block funding with no mention of rights entitlements, as are protected by the ICESCR. Indeed, in 1996, Canada revoked CAP, resulting in drastic increases in social insecurity and homelessness. In Ontario alone, the revocation of CAP resulted in a 22 per cent cut in social welfare benefits in 1995, forcing over 120,000 households from their homes in that year. Between 1985 to 1997, provincial spending on housing was cut by more than 90 per cent.
This represents a trend in which Canada blatantly ignores its international human rights obligations in favor of fiscally conservative neoliberal policies that displace thousands of Canadians. Given the blatant disregard for international obligations domestically, it is apparent that Canada’s championing the human rights doctrine internationally is no more than a performative measure to maintain a degree of clout in the international arena.
It is, therefore, not unreasonable to question The National Housing Strategy Act, and wonder whether this is yet another performative stunt to create the illusion of care, while effectively sweeping the problem of housing insecurity in Canada further under the rug of “future aspirations” and “long-term goals.”
By effectively ignoring the problem of poverty in Canada through performative politics, the Canadian government neglects its international obligations and continues to harm its most vulnerable citizens.
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