On Wednesday evening, Bill C-400 -- for a national housing strategy -- will be voted on at second reading in the House of Commons. If it passes, the bill will be sent to a House committee for all-party review, debate and discussion. If it is defeated, Canada will maintain its dubious status as one of the only developed countries in the world without a national commitment or strategy to address homelessness and inadequate housing.
Support for Bill C-400 is widespread and diverse and includes: national organizations such as Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association; Aboriginal groups including the Assembly of First Nations and the Ontario Native Women’s Association; churches such as the United Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada; unions such as the National Union of Public and General Employees and the Canadian Union of Public Employees; health professionals including several Nurses Associations; municipalities such as St. John's Newfoundland; a host of community organizations including the Calgary Homeless Foundation and Poverty Free Thunder Bay; and many concerned individuals.
All have stepped forward to express that homelessness and inadequate housing in a country as rich as Canada is unacceptable and that Bill C-400 is a key step in addressing this.
These groups and individuals have spoken with MPs from all political parties across the country. And all parties have responded. Three have committed to supporting Bill C-400. Only the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has said no.
This stance by the CPC is baffling. I just don't get it.
Is it that they truly believe the status quo is sufficient, as Minister Finley and many other Conservative MPs have told us? This doesn't seem possible.
None of the Conservatives I have spoken with on this issue deny there is a homelessness problem. And none seem to think it is satisfactory that there are still more than 400,000 homeless people living in shelters and/or on the street in a rich country like Canada. It is hard to believe an MP would defend the status quo, considering that, while there may be some good programs in particular communities, overall what is currently in place hasn't solved the problem.
Is it a question of jurisdiction? This might make sense if the Bill required the federal government to get back into the "business" of housing, which is largely a provincial jurisdiction. But it doesn't. It only requires the federal government to do what it is uniquely positioned to do: show leadership by bringing to the table various stakeholders from across the country to hammer out a national strategy.
Is it because Bill C-400 was originally drafted by the NDP, supposedly the arch-enemy of the Conservatives? This may be a factor, but I'd hope that an issue like homelessness would cross party divides. And clearly it has, for some parties.
Is it because Conservatives assume Bill C-400 would cost money? This is a red herring. Private member's bills are never spending bills. They can't be. Furthermore, if Bill C-400 were adopted, its result -- a national homelessness and housing strategy -- would actually save the country money. A lot of money. We now know the cost of homelessness far outweighs the cost of solving it.
I'll probably never know the real reason. But I do know this: by failing to support Bill C-400, the CPC is missing a huge opportunity.
This is model legislation. If it were adopted it would catapult Canada into the international arena of best-practices by addressing a social issue as unfortunate but as solvable as homelessness. And it would provide the government with a simple mechanism to hear from others across the country about creative and successful ideas for solving homelessness and inadequate housing. It might also restore to Canada its reputation as a compassionate society, one that takes care of those who find themselves in hard times.
On the eve of the vote on Bill C-400, here's my final plea to Conservative MPs: do the right thing on Wednesday night. Support Bill C-400, allow the conversation to continue, and make an important contribution to Canadian society.
And here's my plea to the rest of you: pick up the phone now, call a Conservative MP, tell them that you care about homelessness in Canada and tell them you want them to care too; you want them to vote in favour of Bill C-400.
Leilani Farha is the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty-Advocacy Network.