Bringing Human Rights to the City: Municipal Human Rights Charters in Canada
Entrenching new commitments to social and economic human rights, international human rights values, participatory governance and social inclusion at the municipal level is now emerging as a critical frontier for the international human rights movement. Initiatives have been taken throughout Europe and in several North American cities including Montreal, San Francisco and New York to establish human rights charters or to incorporate international human rights into municipal law.
Municipalities are critical actors in determining the extent to which fundamental human rights are realized in people’s lives. Municipalities are responsible for planning new community developments, facilitating the development of affordable housing, as well as providing social services such as the administration of social assistance benefits and hostels. Municipal governments are further responsible for providing many essential services such as water and sewage, garbage collection, electric utilities, public transit, maintenance of the local road network, and police and fire services. Public health, childcare, parks and recreation, and arts and culture also fall, at least in part, under municipal jurisdiction. Municipalities are powerful corporations. The City of Toronto, for example, owns and maintains an estimated $57 billion in assets including transportation, water and waste water and housing infrastructure.
There is currently a lack of institutional mechanisms at the local level to protect and promote fundamental human rights. International human rights law, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial human rights legislation are legally applicable to municipal decision-making; however, these provisions and their enforcement mechanisms are usually removed from day to day activities at the municipal level. A municipal human rights charter can transform these remote concepts into workable tools for effective and responsive decision-making at the local level. Such a charter will also provide leverage through which local government can hold the private sector and other levels of government accountable to human rights values. It can, for example, give municipalities a new credibility when urging provincial governments to increase social assistance rates or the minimum wage, when advocating for a national affordable housing strategy, or when responding to opposition to the development of a shelter for the homeless or supportive housing for people with disabilities. Ultimately, a municipal human rights charter has the potential to fundamentally redefine how communities approach and respond to the social and economic issues that affect residents.
Why Do We Need Municipal Human Rights Charters?
It is necessary to consider why municipal charters of human rights are needed in Canada, especially given the existence of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the fact that Canada has ratified several international covenants that deal explicitly with social and economic rights. Despite these protections, the municipal arena is often overlooked in discussions of human rights. As a result, municipalities are rarely held accountable to human rights values. A municipal charter can ensure that local laws are consistent with international, national and provincial human rights commitments, and respond to the changing political climate in Canadian cities.
While a municipal human rights charter would benefit all citizens, it is especially critical for disadvantaged groups including the homeless and people living in poverty. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides important protections for economically marginalized citizens. However, the difficulty associated with mounting Charter challenges, the uneven success rate, and the resistance of courts to intervene makes recourse to the courts and the Charter impractical in most situations. The goal of a municipal human rights charter is to extend the values behind the Charter into the municipal arena by providing greater clarity as to rights and obligations in the municipal sphere. In other words, a municipal charter would provide a more nuanced approach to protections already recognized, and provide guidance as to what rights mean in the daily lives of people.
Compared to the federal and provincial government, the municipal government often has the most direct impact on marginalized constituents, and is the most accessible to them. For example, decisions regarding whether a family will receive emergency assistance to pay the rent, or will have access to subsidized housing are now increasingly made by municipal actors. A common threat to marginalized people is discriminatory municipal bylaws, such as anti-panhandling by-laws. Furthermore, a municipal human rights charter also provides a means for municipalities to address discriminatory ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) opposition, which frequently delays and even halts the development of shelters and subsidized housing.
A municipal human rights charter can make explicit local obligations associated with international, national and provincial human rights commitments. Relevant international law includes Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” In addition, Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976 and played a leading role in promoting the adoption and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989. Both of these documents recognize the right to an adequate standard of living including adequate housing. Recent reviews of Canada’s compliance with the ICESCR, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well the 1997 review of Canada’s performance under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) all note the deterioration of social programs and the unequal enjoyment of social and economic rights in Canada. These concerns are directly relevant to municipalities, but there is presently no mechanism for responding to them at the municipal level. A municipal charter provides a way for Canadian cities to be responsive and accountable to international human rights obligations, and to provide effective remedies for violations of social and economic rights when these are identified.
In the past decade, the trend of downloading responsibilities from the federal and provincial governments to the local level has resulted in an increasing number of decisions being made at the municipal level that engage human rights norms, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. One of the problems of downloading is that often the framework of accountability disappears. For example, under the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), social assistance was governed by national standards and those who relied on social assistance were able to go to court to ensure that their province complied with these standards. CAP, however, has been repealed and neither provinces nor the municipalities that are delivering social assistance are accountable to any standards of adequacy of assistance that are central to international human rights obligations.
 Review of the City of Toronto Acts and other Private (Special Legislation): Strong Toronto, Strong Ontario: Participate in the Dialogue: Discussion Guide”, (2005), Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, online: http://www.toronto.ontario.ca/userfiles/page_attachments/Library/1/english_3975693.pdf (11 July 2005)
 Bruce Porter, “Homelessness, human rights, litigation and law reform: a view from Canada” (2004) 10 Australian Journal of Human Rights at 133.