A government that fights against its own people cannot claim to wage war to promote democracy. Yet this is the case in Canada, where the government violates our basic rights to housing while using our resources to fuel its violence in Afghanistan. Why does the government reject our will, and our wellbeing, on both these crucial issues?

Let’s consider some recent history to better understand the connection.

Fifteen years ago, Canada’s federal government scrapped our national housing program, turning Canada into the only industrialized country without one. Federal funds for new housing fell to zero, while about one percent of the budget went to maintaining âe” inadequately âe” existing public housing. Soon after, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, followed the neo-liberal trend when it cancelled social housing projects that would have housed 40,000 people and announced that the “market” would now provide this human necessity.

Together with sweeping cuts to social services and neo-liberal economic reforms, the effects on poor people were devastating. Among other predictable consequences, homelessness increased dramatically. By 1998, the newly formed Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) was leading a campaign to declare homelessness a “national disaster.” Canada’s largest cities and civil society demanded an extra one percent of the budget for housing. The federal government refused, but released some emergency relief funding in response to our pressure.

Now, 300,000 thousand people experience homelessness annually in the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. In a statement after his Oct. 2007 visit, the UN Special Rapporteur on housing observed “the deep and devastating impact of this national crisisâe¦ including a large number of deaths,” and notes federal inaction as its cause.

While the poorest people in Canada suffer and die, billions in government surpluses go to corporate tax cuts and wealth distribution to the richest minority skyrockets as they “break away” from the rest of us.

It is no coincidence that military spending is also skyrocketing âe” to the highest level since WWII, at $18.2 billion or 8.5 percent of the budget. It is no coincidence because Canada’s military plays a key role in this movement by the rich and powerful to squeeze more out of ordinary people.

In the Gulf Region, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean, Canada’s military has been deployed to forcefully expand the same system that dominates our own government and exploits us here: Canadian warships enforced years of Anglo-led sanctions that killed over a million Iraqis; Canadian warplanes played a lead role in the intensive NATO bombing that destroyed the civil infrastructure of Serbia; and elite Canadian soldiers participated in a violent coup against the democratic movement of poor people in Haiti.

Now Canada is fighting another U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. This is aggressive counter-insurgency warfare to prop up a government of warlords chosen to cooperate with NATO’s military goals. The government is a “photocopy of the Taliban” under which things are getting “progressively worse” for women and all Afghans, says feminist Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya, among many other human rights advocates including Afghanistan’s oldest women’s rights group, RAWA. Joya was recently suspended from parliament for criticizing the corrupt warlords that populate it.

Only 17 percent of people in Canada want this combat mission to continue and most of us just want it to stop. Yet Canada’s government spends $100 million per month violently backing one side in a civil war, intensifying divisions and popular alienation and destabilizing the region. 90 percent of this sum goes to war, not reconstruction or aid. The goal cannot be democracy âe” it is control.

The Afghan War is about power. And so is housing.

More than a “key tool” to fight poverty, housing is crucial because empowered life depends on it. Without it, one is denied food, clothing, a phone, physical safety, and other “basic necessities to help you participate in society with dialogue and engagement,” explains Victor Willis, Executive Director of a social agency for poor and homeless people in Toronto. In addition to its regular work, the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) has been struggling to convert an empty neighbouring building into social housing desperately needed by the community it serves.

“Without housing or means, we are cut off from the very things we need for democratic engagement,” notes Willis. When the government denies us housing, it “completely disenfranchises a large group of people.”

This disenfranchisement affects far more people than the 300,000 actually experiencing homelessness annually. The housing crisis impacts millions of people in Canada who live in “core housing need,” who must spend so much of our means on often inadequate shelter that other areas of our life are compromised. These conditions inhibit our participation in democracy and discourage the very idea that we are entitled to such a role. They make it easier for those in power to dominate us.

In response, as always, people unite and organize to fight back together. Recently the TDRC and Canadian Peace Alliance united to launch the national Housing Not War campaign. So far, in less than three months, about 160 organizations and thousands of individuals have signed our Declaration demanding the government end its war in Afghanistan and shift funding from war to peace with an extra one percent of the budget for social housing. The list of endorsers, growing daily, is at www.HousingNotWar.ca.

By tying together causes of anti-poverty and peace, Housing Not War combines progressive movements to build broader pressure for change. Popular pressure is how we won a housing program and other social services in the first place, and is what restrains the state from even worse violence abroad. It is the only way those of us without the means to govern in our current system can push the government to act.

On February 7, in the middle of a workday, over one hundred of us gathered at Finance Minster Jim Flaherty’s office in Toronto’s financial district to demand Housing Not War. One of the speakers, Josephine Grey, urged us, “Remember, that is our money!” We have to help each other to remember that, and to act like it.