In the middle of June, a delegation of eight people from Vancouver travelled to Toronto and Ottawa to kick-start a national campaign to push Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to re-establish a national housing program in Canada. We met with several housing groups in Toronto and others in Ottawa, where we left a few dozen red tents from Pivot Legal Society’s campaign. We also ended a 76-week rolling hunger strike that was aimed at putting pressure on the federal government to act on housing.
This was a trek to commemorate the 75 anniversary of the On to Ottawa Trek, when unemployed relief camp workers boarded the boxcars of trains and tried to take their grievances to Ottawa.
They were violently attacked by police on Canada Day in 1935 in Regina. Though a small delegation did meet with then-prime minister R.B. Bennett, he did not listen to them. Bennett was swept from office and the Conservatives remained in the political wilderness for 22 years. We hope the prime minister and Conservative members of his caucus take the opportunity to listen to people from Vancouver today. They certainly didn’t take the time to meet with us while we were in Ottawa.
We met with representatives from the federal NDP and Liberal party—both of which have endorsed Bill C-304, Libby Davies’ private member’s bill that calls for a national housing strategy. The Bloc Québécois would like minor amendments which would acknowledge Quebec’s continued support for housing at the provincial level. The biggest impediment to passing Bill C-304 is the partisan approach of the Conservative party. Even though Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has called for a national poverty reduction strategy, his Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons seem to show very little interest.
As Stephen Harper hosted the G8 summit last week, he represented the only G8 country without a national housing program.
With housing advocates beginning to prepare for a national day of action in October of this year, there will be red tents visible in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, and many other places. The dozens of people that we met on our trek are all committed to supporting this campaign.
In the prime minister’s own constituency, the city of Calgary, there are more homeless people than Vancouver. The 2008 count showed that there were over 4,000 homeless people in Calgary. Red tents will be arriving in Calgary in the coming weeks.
Homelessness doesn’t recognize provincial borders. That is why a national approach to housing, partnered with provinces and municipalities makes the most sense. Miloon Kothari, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, recommended a national housing program, national standards for the provinces to meet in terms of social policies, and a national poverty reduction plan.
Not only does it make moral sense, it makes economic sense. From a health and human rights perspective, the status quo is a public policy disaster. The prime minister needs to act or he will pay a political price come election time.
Am Johal is the chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.