Canada’s obligation to respect the right to housing: How it can prevent evictions and homelessness

January 26, 2023

Across Canada, renters are increasingly struggling to find affordable housing and to remain in their homes. Eviction rates in Canada are shockingly high, with 7% of Canadian households reporting that they have been evicted at some point in their lives. Many people who are evicted from their homes may not find another place to live, and every year more than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness. This does not capture the experiences of hidden homelessness like individuals couch surfing or living in overcrowded conditions with their family and friends.  

The human right to housing is an important framework for opposing unnecessary evictions and preventing the growing experiences of homelessness. Under Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Canada is obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to housing. The obligation to respect the right to housing prohibits Canadian government bodies, such as residential tenancies tribunals in different provinces, from evicting households from their homes, except when an eviction is necessary as a last resort. 

Specifically, eviction is only permitted under international human rights law if all the following are true: 

  • The eviction must have a legitimate objective. 
  • Eviction must be necessary to achieve the objective, and there must be no reasonable alternative.  
  • The consequences of eviction must be proportionate to the objective.

This is because international law recognizes that, like other human rights, adequate housing is fundamental to human dignity. It can only be restricted in circumstances where the restriction is justified in a free and democratic society.   

Unfortunately, all too often Canadian tribunals order evictions in violation of these basic principles. For example: 

  • Households that owe rent can be evicted with no consideration of whether the eviction is necessary.  In many cases, households would have been able to repay their arrears on a repayment plan, if given the chance. 
  • Households can be evicted with no consideration of whether the eviction is proportionate.  Evictions can be ordered for minor and even trivial reasons, even where the impact on the household losing their home will be severe. 
  • In many provinces, households can be evicted simply because their lease is up, even if the eviction will serve no purpose whatsoever.

To further complicate the matter, Canada’s eviction laws vary wildly between provinces. Some provincial laws allow tribunal adjudicators to consider the circumstances and decide whether eviction would be fair, so that it would at least be possible for the tribunal to respect the right to housing. Other provincial laws give adjudicators no choice but to order evictions, making it impossible for them to respect the right to housing. These varying laws have created uneven protections for renters across the country, leaving many vulnerable to losing their homes without the chance to present their circumstances and the devastating impact that an eviction may have on their lives.  

How do we solve this issue?

To ensure that renters in Canada have a fair chance to live in their homes and contribute meaningfully to their communities and the economy, we need a shift in our approach to eviction. To meet Canada’s obligation to respect the right to housing, we recommend that each province and territory must: 

  • Amend its residential tenancies laws to provide that eviction can only be ordered if it serves a legitimate objective, is necessary to achieve that objective, and is proportionate to the objective. 
  • Train tribunal adjudicators to respect the right to housing in their decisions. 
  • Ensure that tenants have access to eviction alternatives, such as rent banks to help pay their rent rather than losing their home if they were unable to pay their rent in full. 
  • Ensure that tenants have full, fair access to legal advice and to tribunal proceedings so that tribunals have all the information before them to determine whether an eviction is truly necessary. 

Evictions can be devastating for those who experience them. In too many instances, evictions can lead to experiences of homelessness. It is our duty as a democratic society to protect everyone, irrespective of their income or circumstances, to live with dignity and in secure homes.  

Get the latest updates about the right to housing in Canada