Poverty and Prohibited Grounds for Discrimination in Canada
A black single mother with two children and relying on social assistance and public housing was given one month’s notice that she would be evicted from her home with no reason given. In Canada public housing was exempted from the security of tenure provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act. The evicted woman, pointing to the reality that not only are public housing residents typically poor but also often black and single mothers, complained to a provincial court that the legislation discriminated on the enumerated ground of race and sex and on the “analogous” grounds of marital/family status (single mothers) and poverty/income. The trial judge dismissed the application, finding that blacks, poor people and single mothers were not singled out for differential treatment.
The woman appealed the verdict in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal. The Court upheld the appeal and struck down the provisions of the Act which excluded public housing tenants from security of tenure protections, thereby extending protections to all residents of public housing. The Court found that the exclusion constituted adverse effect discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, marital status and poverty. It found that poverty is a personal characteristic analogous to those that are enumerated under s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including race, national or ethnic origin and sex, and is a prohibited ground of discrimination.
The case is one of the earliest and most progressive applications of the right to equality and non-discrimination to extend housing rights to persons living in poverty. The finding that poverty is a prohibited ground of discrimination was ground-breaking and has been a focus of subsequent advocacy. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel have since recommended prohibiting discrimination because of poverty or social condition in human rights legislation.