In the midst of Canada’s housing crisis, there’s a strong narrative that housing is a commodity rather than our right. Bonnie Mah, strategic narrative lead at Maytree, considers the opportunities and challenges of rights-based framing and talks about how she and her colleagues are trying to shift the conversation on housing in Canada.
Across the country, millions of Canadians are experiencing the effects of a housing crisis that’s decades in the making. Many activists and organizations, including Maytree, have been calling on governments to fulfill and protect Canadians’ human right to housing.
The federal National Housing Strategy recognizes that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law and commits Canada to realizing that right. Several provinces and cities have also declared housing a right. Yet action is slow. Can framing the housing crisis as a human rights issue instead of as a public health or economic crisis mobilize more urgent action and achieve meaningful change?
What’s the dominant narrative on housing in Canada?
There’s a strong narrative that housing is a commodity, as opposed to our right.
When you think of housing as a commodity, you think, How do people purchase a home? How do you ensure that their property value is maintained? One of the big narratives that’s out there right now is that our housing problem is a problem of supply. And if we don’t have enough supply, then the answer is just to build more supply. Unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account any aspects of people’s human dignity or adequate standard of living.
When you frame a problem a certain way, it leads you to certain kinds of solutions.Bonnie Mah, Maytree
When you frame a problem a certain way, it leads you to certain kinds of solutions. One of the challenges of this work is that existing narratives are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we don’t actually hear them anymore. They’re so deep in our beliefs.
What is the counter-narrative Maytree is proposing?
What we’re trying to do is to talk about human rights. We’re saying that if we think that housing is a human right, it’s not about its real estate value; it’s about the value to human beings to have a decent place to live. When we reframe housing as a matter of human rights, it makes us focus on the role of government. What are they doing to respect, protect, and fulfill our rights? The message becomes that every person should be able to have a home, and that home should allow them to live in dignity.
The message becomes that every person should be able to have a home, and that home should allow them to live in dignity.
We need to think of housing as more than just a built structure. The things that make up a home and a dignified life are more complicated than just four walls and a roof. We need to think about everything that contributes to somebody’s well-being. Is the home suitable? Is it accessible? Is it close to employment or school? Is it close to parks and recreation? Is it close to families and friends? Is there good public transportation in that area? Are there appropriate grocery stores and amenities? We need to think about the person, not just about a unit of housing.
How do predominant social beliefs about people experiencing poverty affect how you deploy that narrative?
There’s a dominant narrative that poverty is the result of people making bad individual choices. And that there are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. For example, people who have disabilities are deserving, but people who are unemployed are lazy or unable to keep a job.
We want to focus on talking about the systemic pressures that keep people in poverty, and saying that the solutions to poverty are not going to be charity-based. Not that there’s not a value to charity-based approaches, but they’re never going to solve the problem.
Who are you targeting with your message?
We’re mainly speaking to leaders in other organizations, in civil society and in the policy sphere. Right now we’re not talking to a broader general audience, although it’s something that I’d look forward to doing in the future.
A constant challenge in communications is getting outside of our bubble and grappling with how people who are not experts think about these issues. What is that popular perception of a person who lives in poverty and is on the brink of homelessness? How do you make a connection with an audience that is not in these issues every single day? There’s a distance that we’re struggling to bridge.
A constant challenge in communications is getting outside of our bubble and grappling with how people who are not experts think about these issues.
I’d love to do our own research about how people in Canada, in Ontario, in Toronto today are thinking about poverty, about the role of the state in their lives, about the role of fate, for lack of a better word. Whether people believe you can really change the outcome of someone’s life. And use that data to build out some cultural models that exist today in our specific cultural situation that could inform messaging.
What challenges do you run into when you use rights-based languages with your audiences?
Advocates in the housing sector have been working on housing as a human right for years. The idea is growing in the public discussion now, but people still don’t know what it means. Sometimes people use it almost as a slogan. But it’s not a slogan that activists made up. It’s an established concept with established principles and practices based on internationally accepted human rights norms.
Among community organizations and advocates, there’s a lot of openness to the idea of using human rights language. The challenge there is to make sure that when we’re saying “human rights” we all mean the same thing. There are popular perceptions of what human rights mean that would almost be using the word “rights” in a conversational manner: we all have a right to housing because it just seems like the right thing to do. As opposed to being able to tease out What do we need to do to fulfill that human right?
Among the public, people often jump to civil and political rights – elections and protection against arbitrary imprisonment. Many people think we’re doing pretty well on human rights. We think we’re human rights upholders, a compassionate society with a social welfare system and public healthcare and education. The human rights narrative challenges people’s perceptions of themselves and our society. That’s hard to do, because who wants to be challenged on that?
Among policy-makers and decision-makers, there’s been a reluctance to talk about human rights at all. There’s an idea that human rights comes with a particular kind of legal obligation that they don’t want to deal with, maybe because the popular perception of human rights is that you bring a case to the tribunals to complain about an equality or an equity issue. Everyone is ready to talk about administrative simplicity and value for money. But we should be talking about value for people.
So we try to contrast the current state to what it could be. We make the point that things don’t have to be done this way. We ask the question What if we thought about ensuring the right to housing not as a nice-to-have, but as one of government’s core functions and responsibilities? We call them to action: This is your duty, how are you going to fulfill that duty?
How do you integrate your people-centred values into your rights-based frame?
We use the word “dignity” as a swap-out for “human rights” because dignity is more accepted as a cross-partisan way of talking about rights and has a wider appeal.
The Frameworks Institute talks about how using cultural models as the basis of your framing allows you to come up with messages that can cut across a whole bunch of different audiences. And so I think using concepts like dignity, for example, or “a decent standard of living,” is a way that we’re trying to reach people who might be scared off by talk of human rights. We’ve also been trying out different ways of wording things that are slightly more emotional.
We’ve also been trying out different ways of wording things that are slightly more emotional.
The risks of using a word like “dignity” without using the human rights framing around it is that part of the human-rights-based approach is looking at how systems exert pressure on individuals and create the conditions in which poverty occurs. How do our collective decisions create the conditions in which there is no adequate housing available for people? If you use a word like “dignity” without the human rights framing, there’s a risk that some people think, That person is acting in an undignified way, or they’re making poor decisions in their own life, and that’s how they’ve ended up in this situation. Whereas our values are that everybody should have a decent standard of living – that it’s not just about an individual’s choices, but rather about all the laws and regulations and economic, social, and cultural pressures that are outside of your control and that are creating the conditions that influence your life.
How do you balance developing strategic messaging and narratives with the other demands of your job?
My title at Maytree is “lead, strategic narrative.” I’m part of the communication team, and my goal is to work towards that larger goal of building a culture of human rights.
We’re really lucky to have a communications team at Maytree, whereas many organizations may have only one person. We’re in a really good position, and still it’s difficult for us to manage and have the capacity to do this work when we’re juggling other communications tasks like production and promotion and that sort of thing. I’d love to be able to spend more time on this work, and to know what other tools I could put into use today to start moving us further along.
My view on narrative change is that it has to be an organizational commitment, not just a communications exercise, and should be part of an organization’s theory of change. What has your approach been?
Building a culture of human rights is definitely something that we have in our plan at Maytree. The rationale behind that is that creating public support drives political will, which is what is going to drive policy and systemic change.
Over the past year, we’ve been working to get everyone internally comfortable with what we’re talking about, how it applies to our work, and why we believe in it. Now, when my colleagues get called for media interviews, everyone is more comfortable using the framing.
We’ve talked about how we can make narrative building whole-of-organization work instead of just something that’s happening on one person’s desk on one team.
We’ve talked about how we can make narrative building whole-of-organization work instead of just something that’s happening on one person’s desk on one team. We’re asking ourselves, How do we infuse that in our other conversations and our team meetings? Do we have a monthly leadership meeting which is like an editorial meeting where we brainstorm about topics that are happening in the news or that people are talking about?
What does success look like for you?
In the shorter term, we’re looking at things like How do people talk about the issue? Are people in power talking about housing as a human right? Are people starting to frame it as a systemic issue instead of an individual issue? It’s hard to measure, though. A lot of the metrics we’re currently using tell us about eyeballs, but they don’t tell us about hearts and minds.
In the longer-term, the goal is that housing is understood as a human right. And that we believe that each person has dignity and that we’re doing things as a society that support each person’s dignity. It would be a success if people rolled their eyes when you say that because it’s known.
I don’t know if there are a lot of examples out there of organizations working on narrative change where you can say, Here’s the change that resulted from our work. The long time horizon and the somewhat amorphous nature of the work makes it something that’s less easy to get a grasp on. We’re probably never going to be able to say, We wrote this and this and this, and now the narrative has changed. We’re going to have to look back 10 years from now and see, Were we among the people in all sorts of different sectors and walks of life who contributed to a sensibility change?