Using a human rights approach means reconceptualizing what our systems do, what they aim for, and who they serve. It is the ultimate in systems change. Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree, reflects on the foundation’s work and role in implementing a human rights approach to poverty.
As foundations, we walk a path, sometimes leading and sometimes following, always in pursuit of doing good.
When I guest-edited the series on poverty and human rights for The Philanthropist in 2016/17, Maytree was in some ways at a turning point in our path. Developing that series was part of our journey to learn about a human rights approach to poverty, and to explore its potential for advancing deep and durable solutions to poverty in Canada.
We were also on the cusp of the National Housing Strategy Act, ultimately passed in 2019, which affirmed the human right to housing in Canada. It was a landmark piece of legislation, an acknowledgement of our longstanding international commitments brought, finally, into our own domestic law. In the years since, our governments and civil society have been figuring out how we move from recognizing our human rights to ensuring that people experience their rights in their everyday lives – how we move along the path from theory to implementation.
What a human rights approach brings to our work on poverty
When Maytree committed to taking a human rights approach, we understood that it meant looking at the persistent problem of poverty from a different angle, and that this was necessary because the “same old ways” of doing things were not working. However, as an organization, and I would suggest as a sector, we are still doing the work of articulating what exactly a human rights approach entails. We are still visualizing what human rights values look like in practice.
Here in Canada, our national narrative around human rights centres on the civil and political rights outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the equality rights in our federal and provincial human rights codes. Our systems that explicitly focus on human rights, such as commissions and tribunals, have traditionally responded to complaints brought forward by a few individuals or groups, and on claims for equality or non-discrimination.
Human rights are indivisible and interdependent, meaning that you haven’t truly realized your human rights unless you have access to all of them.
Taking a human rights approach to poverty expands this idea. First, it restores the fullness of human rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights, in addition to civil and political rights. Human rights are indivisible and interdependent, meaning that you haven’t truly realized your human rights unless you have access to all of them. Second, in a human rights approach, the role of government must be more than reactive. It requires governments to initiate and sustain actions to respect, protect, and fulfill the full suite of human rights, for each person, family, and community in their jurisdiction.
|Economic, social, and cultural rights are those human rights relating to the workplace, social security, family life, participation in cultural life, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education. They include the right to fair wages and equal pay; the right to adequate protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, or old age; and the right to an adequate standard of living. These are affirmed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada ratified in 1976.
A human rights approach is grounded in decades of international practice. It is not limited to abstract theory. It includes principles that should underlie state actions to eliminate poverty.
A human rights approach sees poverty as a systems-level problem that impacts individuals. It leads us to systems-level decisions, which can be evaluated through their impact on individuals.
When we think of poverty as an individual problem, one that results from individual choices or circumstances, it leads us to think about individual-level solutions. A person should get a job, and then they’d have money. With money, they can get what they need.
Reframing these problems as systems problems means that our collective decision-making matters.
When we think of poverty as a problem with our systems, our search for solutions shifts away from the individual. How do we ensure that employers are providing workers with adequate pay and decent working conditions? How do we ensure that adequate housing is affordable for people with the lowest incomes? How do income and public services (such as our education, healthcare, and social security systems) work together so that each person has an adequate standard of living? What tools can governments use to ensure that market prices for essential goods and services are affordable for everyone?
Reframing these problems as systems problems means that our collective decision-making matters. Governments have a duty to respect, protect, and fulfill the economic and social rights of every person in Canada. Their actions should be grounded in human rights principles and practices; for example:
- Put people at the centre of decision-making;
- Prioritize the people most in need;
- Provide opportunities for meaningful participation in decision-making;
- Aim for progressive realization (that is, make continuous progress toward the goal);
- Use maximum available resources and all appropriate means, including legislation; and
- Institute mechanisms and structures for transparency and accountability.
It also means that each person is a rights-holder, with an equal and valid claim to human dignity. Taking a human rights approach means acknowledging deeply rooted cultural beliefs about the causes of poverty and about people who are poor. The dominant culture in Canada sees poverty as a result of individual choices. It categorizes people who are poor as “deserving” and “undeserving.” People who are deserving have “done nothing wrong,” such as children and people with severe disabilities, while those who are undeserving are people who are “lazy,” “addicted,” or for whatever other reason simply “refuse to get a job.” These beliefs culminate in the idea that poverty is inevitable; because our society will always have people who make bad choices, we will always have people who are poor.
A human rights approach requires us to face these beliefs and set them aside. Every person, by virtue of being human, has an inherent right to a life with dignity. A human rights approach sets out principles that will underlie our actions to eliminate, rather than manage, poverty. It provides a basis for action in our systems, laws, and practices to ensure people can access their economic and social rights.
As the National Housing Strategy Act shows us, it can lead us to solutions that are protected by law.
A human rights approach provides us with a shared vision of human dignity, an overarching goal that can guide and motivate us beyond issue-by-issue advocacy. It also provides a common cause between those of us working in adjacent fields. When we work for economic and social rights, we work for affordable housing, decent work, food security, equitable education and healthcare, clean water and sanitation, and other areas that contribute to our standard of living. We work for people who have been marginalized for all kinds of reasons.
By considering the influence of systems, it leads us to durable solutions that address the root causes of poverty. As the National Housing Strategy Act shows us, it can lead us to solutions that are protected by law.
Challenges of taking a human rights approach
While the language of rights is becoming more prevalent in mainstream discourse, colloquially it is often misused, appropriated to apply to issues better understood as “wants” or “privileges” rather than human rights. Consider the rhetoric that mashes up the internationally recognized fundamental human right to housing with “property rights” or “homeowner rights” – phrases often used to oppose locating affordable housing, homeless shelters, or supportive housing in residential neighbourhoods. The language of rights has been conflated, in some cases in direct opposition to a true human right.
Perhaps adopting the language of human rights is made easier by the general acceptance of the idea of rights, and its connection with our national identity. After all, a Canadian, John Humphrey, was one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. As a nation, we tend to think of ourselves as being upholders of human rights. Our focus on civil and political rights has led to a system of laws, institutions, and practices aimed at respecting, protecting, and fulfilling those rights. On some aspects of economic and social rights, as a society we agree on the need for public systems – for example, on public healthcare and education. But on others, such as affordable housing and income security, we simply have not done the work to ensure that people have access to their rights. Further, society has not forged a clear agreement that it is governments’ job to do so.
Using a human rights approach means reconceptualizing what our systems do, what they aim for, and who they serve. It is the ultimate in systems change.
This is challenging work. The status quo is a powerful force. Change is hard, especially when that change involves questioning the very foundations of our social systems. Solutions can be complicated and lead to legitimate debates about how to tackle these problems. For example, some argue that we should focus on improving income supports so that people have enough money, while others want to improve labour standards to ensure that jobs pay people enough to support a decent life, and others advocate for more public services so that people can get what they need even if they have no income. While the principles of human rights help us to clarify our objectives, doing the work of finding and implementing solutions can be messy. Our social systems are complex and interrelated, and our solutions will need to be as well. No one program or policy will be perfect, though it might be an improvement. We need to be comfortable accepting progress over perfection, which can be challenging in a sector so motivated by doing good and seeing the immediate impact of our work.
Taking a human rights approach requires us to take a longer, more nuanced view of change.
In our sector, we are conditioned by short-termism – we focus on immediate outputs and straight-line attribution. This has come about for a variety of reasons, including traditional funding and evaluation structures that emphasize outputs within short-term contracts.
Taking a human rights approach requires us to take a longer, more nuanced view of change. Along with systems change, we are dealing with cultural change. Talking about “human rights” conjures a particular image and understanding of how our laws work and the role of the government. Talking about “poverty” conjures deeply ingrained beliefs about who people in poverty are, and why they are there. These beliefs can run so deep as to be tacit, operating below the level of our awareness, reinforced by the systems around us, social norms, and popular culture. Change of that order can take time. Our work is to accelerate the pace of change.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect to see immediate gains, nor that we should settle for change that is so incremental that it would produce no impact on a person’s daily life. But it does mean that we need to be able to see success in progressive steps along the road, while continuing to work for more.
In the seven years that we have been doing this work, we have seen progress. One of the most tangible examples is the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA).
With the NHSA, decades of work by housing advocates came to fruition. By acknowledging the human right to housing in our domestic law, the federal government acknowledged the commitment that Canada made on the international stage more than 40 years ago by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is an important symbol, and also a signal of the federal government’s willingness to re-enter the world of housing after decades of public policy that shunted responsibility for housing almost entirely to the private market.
The new law also set a new baseline for action. Our advocacy on housing can now begin with that accepted premise: housing is a human right. Or more simply: every person needs a home.
The NHSA was soon followed by action at the local level. The City of Toronto, for example, adopted the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, which affirms the human right to housing, and the municipality’s role in fulfilling that right. The city has begun to build on this work. For example, in 2020, it undertook a human rights review during the development of a proposed regulatory framework for multi-tenant houses (commonly called rooming houses or single-room-occupancy housing). Maytree supported the city in this process. In the end, Toronto’s city council did not pass these regulations, which would have ensured the quality and safety of this particular type of affordable housing.
The politics around housing for people living in poverty is contentious. The refusal to pass the regulatory framework is an example of the challenges we face: many people don’t believe that people who are poor “deserve” to live in their neighbourhood, and our public conversations about rights increasingly conflate “property rights” with fundamental human rights. It highlights the need for political leaders with the courage to lead, rather than follow the worst inclinations of a few vocal constituents.
Despite this setback, city staff and some Toronto councillors have shown a promising openness to learning more about human rights approaches and how to apply them in their work. It is progress. It is movement, albeit slow, in the right direction.
Figuring out how to be helpful
When Maytree started our work on finding human-rights-based solutions to poverty, we joined a network of experts and advocates with decades of experience in this field. It was humbling. We had a lot to learn. We asked lots of questions, including How can we be helpful?
We identified a few areas where we could contribute. On housing, we convened researchers, policy analysts, community advocates, and people with lived experience of homelessness or housing insecurity. We fostered relationships with government to find opportunities to build a human rights approach into the federal government’s re-entry into the housing sphere. We continued to draw on this network of expertise to work with the City of Toronto on the implementation of its 10-year housing plan, and we continue to seek opportunities to work with the Ontario provincial government.
More broadly, we invest in public policy research and analysis and in government relations, focusing on housing and income. In a data-poor environment, we try to fill gaps in knowledge to inform advocacy and press for government accountability. For example, our work collating case and rate data on social assistance programs across Canada are some of the only resources of their kind, and provide evidence of the ongoing need for and utter inadequacy of these programs.
Through granting, we resource community-based organizations that work to increase people’s access to economic and social rights – education, employment, and food security. Granting puts resources behind people and communities toward their participation in the collective decisions that affect them the most. As a foundation that does not provide direct services to clients, these relationships with partners and grantees are invaluable. Not only because our grantees are doing work that we cannot do ourselves, but because we also gain insight into what happens to people when our public systems fail.
When we think of ‘human rights,’ many tend to think of large-scale, national-level issues. Cities, though, are where people experience their lives, where their ability to access their rights (or not) becomes a lived reality.
Much of our granting focuses on local-level action. When we think of “human rights,” many tend to think of large-scale, national-level issues. Cities, though, are where people experience their lives, where their ability to access their rights (or not) becomes a lived reality. Municipal governments are responsible for many of the systems that we need daily, such as zoning for housing, parks and recreation, and public health services.
Over the years, we have been working on articulating what the principles of a human rights approach mean in practice. Where and how do we advocate for changes in the way our public systems operate so that people experience their human rights in their everyday lives? What can we learn from the way our community partners serve individuals and families?
And we continue to ask ourselves, How can we be of service?
We continue to take our lead from others, from the advocates, researchers, and policy community who have been working in this field for years, and, most importantly, from the people who experience poverty and inadequacy in their lives every day. These experts, the people who live with the consequences of our systems that are built to put and keep people in poverty, must be active participants in shaping the solutions that will impact their lives the most.
In our next article, I will explore Maytree’s journey to expand the depth and breadth of our thinking about engaging with people with lived experience of poverty – from storytelling to rights-based participation.