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September 30, 2010

Libby Davies calls for national housing strategy

Reuel S. Amdur

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"It is a travesty that we don't have a national housing program," Vancouver East MP Libby Davies told the 16th annual National Urban Aboriginal Housing Conference in Ottawa.

The event, which ran from Sept. 22 to 24, presented information on urban Aboriginal homelessness and conducted workshops to address the issue.

The federal government’s decision to offload responsibility for housing onto the provinces makes Canada is the only industrialized country without a national housing strategy, and led Davies to run for Parliament in 1997. Today, she said our piecemeal approach to housing causes long-term uncertainty.

Her private member’s bill for a national housing program, Bill C-304, “An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians,” is up for third reading in the House of Commons on Oct. 20.

The bill cites Canada’s responsibilities under international law with regard to the provision of adequate housing for all its citizens. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights makes adequate housing a fundamental human right, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights commits Canada to making progress on this and other rights-related issues.

Davies is returning to the long-standing call of housing advocates that an additional 1% of government revenue be spent on housing. Specifically, she is calling on the minister responsible for the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to establish a national housing strategy in consultation with provincial and territorial ministers of municipal and housing affairs, municipalities, Aboriginal communities, and other non-profit and private sector organizations.

Some Conservative MPs, though, have argued that the government is already doing what the bill proposes, and cite the $1.9 billion over five years the government committed in 2008 for housing and homelessness programs. However, a specific program is not a substitute for a long-term strategy with set goals and timelines.

“This bill would go some distance to ensure that Aboriginal peoples–First Nations, Métis and Inuit–including those living in urban areas, are consulted on a national housing strategy,” said Charlie Hill, executive director of the National Aboriginal Housing Association. “Aboriginal peoples have the worst housing conditions in the country, with over 20% of the non-reserve population in core housing need.”

CMHC describes families in “core housing need” as those who cannot afford shelter that meets “adequacy, suitability, and affordability norms.” Affordability is defined as being not more than 30% of household income.

According to Precarious Housing in Canada, a report from the Wellesley Institute on Aboriginal housing, which was also presented at the conference, 1.5 million of 12 million Canadian households are in core housing need. Moreover, 1.3 million need major repairs to eliminate health and safety hazards.

A major health hazard is overcrowding. Among the Inuit the figure 31% live in a crowded condition, which is defined as dwelling with more than one person per room. The figure for other Natives is 15% and 3% for non-Aboriginals.

It is understandable, then, that the tuberculosis rate on reserves is 31 times higher than in the general Canadian population, and the rate among the Inuit is 185 times greater. Also contributing to these higher rates is poor ventilation.

Davies’ bill has the support of her party, the New Democrats, as well the Liberals. The Bloc Québécois appears ready to support it with the usual Quebec opt-out option.

Davies and others are actively trying to get Conservative members to vote for the bill. Because it’s a private member’s bill, it is not subject to party discipline. Are there any Red Tories still around?

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