Building a home in government for the Federal Housing Advocate

Kazumi Moore By Kazumi Moore

This summer, I’m one of many interns working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not the only thing making my experience at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) unique. This is the first year the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism has partnered with the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA), for a simple reason: this is the first full year the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate has existed.

The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), enacted in 2019, created the OFHA. The OFHA is so new that a Federal Housing Advocate has not even been appointed yet. The NHSA enshrines housing as a human right and charges the Federal Housing Advocate to monitor the progressive realization of the right to housing and research systemic housing issues. My team’s work is focused on preparing the office for the Advocate so they can hit the ground running. For example, I have been writing a lot of briefs on different housing issues for the Advocate to read once they’re appointed.

I wrote one on Canadian jurisprudence around economic, social, and cultural rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights include rights like the right to housing and the right to healthcare – they impose positive obligations on governments. While there is international consensus that the “positive” and “negative” rights dichotomy is false and not useful, Canadian courts still look at positive obligations as “non-justiciable.” But a right to housing isn’t meaningful unless it can be enforced. This allowed me to apply what I learned taking Public International Law at McGill and sparked an interest in how to make positive rights enforceable in domestic Canadian law and jurisprudence.

It has been a summer of non-stop learning. This is my first time working for a large organization and for government, so even the work flows were a learning curve. I had some experience working from home, so I thought it would be a fairly independent process, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how many meetings we are constantly attending. My teammates generously extended me invites to any meetings I was interested in attending, whether or not it had to do with my work, and sitting on these meetings with all of these knowledgeable and accomplished people has allowed me to learn about so many facets of different housing issues. It definitely made up for missing out on in-person connections. It has been great experience for someone like me interested in a career in government.

Multiple actors will always be involved in fulfilling the right to housing because housing is cross-jurisdictional, not falling squarely within either provincial or federal jurisdiction. Building a new office in government clearly requires connections between federal government departments, and our office is also required to consult with civil society organizations, members of vulnerable groups, and people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness. Having a mandate grounded in international human rights law means that we also need to talk to experts in those areas. These relationships are crucial for the inherently collaborative implementation of the right to adequate housing.

Hopefully, the Advocate will be appointed soon – some team members had even speculated they could be appointed before my internship started. But this way, I was able to see everything that goes into building an office from scratch – an experience that not many people working for the federal government have. If everything goes according to plan, next year’s intern will enter a fully-staffed OFHA and jump into all the projects we teed up this summer. Legislatively, there are many things we can’t even do without the appointment of the Advocate and we have been working within those limitations. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the housing crisis in Canada and many people are looking to the OFHA for action. Housing touches everyone, and helping set the groundwork for the OFHA this summer is a tangible contribution that I’ll be able to look back on.

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