A class tour of Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside has led two UBC students to draft a human-rights complaint that will be filed against Canada before the United Nations.
The complaint will be brought before the UN Human Rights Council by the Impact on Community Coalition, Pivot Legal Society, and the Carnegie Community Action Project. These groups have been critical of the adverse impact of the 2010 Olympics on housing.
“This is just disheartening,” UBC political-science student Mike Powar told the Georgia Straight , referring to the housing problem not only in the Downtown Eastside but also in the Metro Vancouver area.
The 27-year-old Powar was one of 17 students who enrolled in UBC professor Michael Byers’s seminar on global politics and international law last year. Byers took them on a walking tour of the Downtown Eastside, encouraging them to identify international issues that relate to this impoverished neighbourhood.
According to Byers, Powar and another student, Gayle Stewart, decided to undertake a review on whether Canada is fulfilling its international commitments to ensuring adequate housing for its citizens. The complaint will be filed through the so-called 1503 procedure, which the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights describes as the “oldest human-rights complaint mechanism in the United Nations system”.
“In this instance, my students are trying to use this mechanism to demonstrate that there is a systematic violation of human rights occurring with respect to the lack of affordable housing,” Byers said.
The two UBC students were mentored by activist and IOCC board member Am Johal, who guided Byers’s class on the Downtown Eastside tour in September. Johal noted that the filing of the complaint follows on the heels of the visit to Canada in October by Miloon Kothari, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.
Kothari came to Vancouver less than a week after B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell announced that the provincial government is allocating $41 million in additional funding to housing initiatives. The money will be used to fund the 24-hour operation of emergency shelters, outreach services, rent supplements, and predevelopment costs for properties earmarked by the City of Vancouver for new supportive housing.
“On this mission, I heard of hundreds of people who have died as a result of Canada’s nationwide housing crisis,” Kothari stated in his preliminary report. “In its most recent periodic review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the United Nations used strong language to label housing and homelessness and inadequate housing as a ”˜national emergency’.”
In an interview with the Straight, Johal noted that the provincial government’s purchase of 17 low-rent hotels is a positive measure in preserving available housing stock in Vancouver.
“What they haven’t done is to change the legislative framework, which allows owners to legally evict tenants,” Johal said. “The difference between a residential property and any other commodity in a different kind of business is that there’s very clear responsibilities related to the human right to housing that nation states have to guarantee.”
Activists like Johal have ongoing concerns about possible evictions leading up to the 2010 Olympics. According to him, some 300,000 visitors are expected to arrive in the Metro Vancouver region, which has only 27,000 hotel rooms.
“There’s a number of private facilities and home stays that are going to be available,” Johal said. “There simply isn’t enough capacity to meet the actual demand. Without enhanced protections, this will lead to thousands of evictions.”
According to Pivot lawyer David Eby’s count, some 448 housing units in hotels and residential buildings in the Downtown Eastside have been closed since December, mostly for renovations or as a condition of their sale.
Eby told the Straight that the complaint against Canada will be filed before the UN this month. -