Campaigning to Support Homeless People, Will Canadian Parliament Deliver?

Canadian Parliament

Last October’s federal election has come and gone. While there was some change in the make-up of Canada’s parliament, the change wasn’t as spectacular as many anticipated early on. Now, with all sitting cabinet ministers sworn in, critic portfolios assigned, throne speeches delivered, and holidays passed, Canada’s Members of Parliament prepare to return to the House of Commons to get back to work.

With sleeves rolled up, promises to keep, and a minority parliament to navigate, the spring session could prove interesting for Canadian politicians and housing advocates alike.

Ahead of the fall general election, I penned an editorial to focus on the national housing debate, which featured representatives from each core political party. Analyzing soundbites and dissecting campaign platform promises, I did my best to find relatable lines of symmetry for poverty and homelessness activists on a national scale. The results seemed promising, but now the actual work begins.

Will the well-intentioned campaigns deliver on their promises and offered compromises? Or were they just pandering to a public seeking answers and action?

Sitting front row at the National Housing Debate in Ottawa just a couple of weeks before the October 21st, 2019 federal election here in Canada, I learned first-hand how the theatre of politics tends to outweigh the interests of the public.

Pierre Poilievre, a full-fledged leadership contest to replace Andrew Scheer, represented the Conservative Party of Canada at this debate. Watching him make comments like “the same socialist governments who want to spend gobs of money on public housing and have pushed those costs on, making it more expensive to develop affordable private market housing,” while also advocating for an adjustment to the $250 million dollar “innovation challenge,” where he would instead rather see public money given to developers and municipalities “that can effectively eliminate regulatory burdens,” is a bit of a conundrum.

As I have stated before, the unfortunate mentality that all research and innovation is an impractical concept is one I always find challenging. This is especially true considering that the only thing making research useless is when we ignore it. Referencing experience and historical examples, we also know spending public money to incentivize private development has not always yielded meaningful results for those the most in need of affordable housing.

As a moderate thinker and amateur political pundit, I like to think that I (at least attempt to) recognize the value of a strong economy, returns on investments, and how more homes in theory should nurture more opportunities for home ownership. However, what really stood out to me during this national debate was the amount of debate over regulation, construction incentives and affordable home ownership, and so little about ending homelessness or the mitigating factors that attribute to national poverty.

This is all more relevant now.

While voters rejected (outgoing Conservative Party of Canada leader) Andrew Scheer’s campaign as weak on policy and rejected his leadership as vanilla and uninspiring, there was still a massive segment of our voting population who cried out for a serious change in our governing ranks, and inherently believe “big government” often creates more inefficiencies than opportunities. And sometimes they might just be right.

Now, with Pierre stepping up as one of the only current sitting Parliamentarians to replace Andrew Scheer as leader of the Official Opposition, his views on “socialism” and “big government” and the “cost burdens” of social programs and affordable housing will likely be on display now more than ever before.

Heralding back to the October national debate on housing, I am reminded of how the progressives and even the housing advocates often resorted to the game of name-calling and one liners in place of actual sound policy. I am not for a moment suggesting the people on that stage don’t care about the issue they are debating. However, it appears the theatrics of politics is often more relevant than the act of politics.

Now, with a minority Parliament in play, riding associations are expected to start naming candidates for the next election cycle quickly, fundraising will kick into overdrive, and thorough and challenging policy could be scrapped in the name of safer resolutions that garner cross-party support and limit the chances of triggering a “no confidence” vote.

So what about those that are voting for those policies and depending on that challenging discourse to deliver results?

On average, over 30,000 Canadians face homelessness on our streets each and every night. Our climate can be bone-chilling, and our winters often last a while. We have a national opioid crisis that has seen over 17,500 cases of opioid-poisoning and over 13,900 opioid-related deaths in a three-year period between 2016 and just last year.

The famous Toronto Homelessness Memorial recently marked a grim milestone, adding new names that bring the grand total to over 1,000 Canadians. The memorial commemorates the lives of those who die homeless on the streets of Canada’s largest urban city.

As the homelessness epidemic explodes and momentum for emergency action grows exponentially, it is activists, service providers, charities and those directly affected that turn to politicians to help attack this national tragedy head on. But will they?

Will they take the necessary chances to continue down an historic path of social and structural change made possible by Canada’s National Housing Policy? Or will that historic momentum be compromised?

Will the new federal government focus resources on veteran’s homelessness in Canada, as our current (and re-elected) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated during his “speech from the throne” last November?

Will the weakened left rise up under the tattered but popular leadership of Jagmeet Singh and the New Democratic Party of Canada, and demand that the government be held to account on issues like national pharma-care and enhanced dental coverage?

What about senior New Democrat MP Charlie Angus’s private member’s bill to establish a suicide prevention and response strategy for Canada? I saw this bill pass in person, and it received bipartisan support unanimously. When will this government give it teeth? Or is this yet another case of politicians raising a glass to promises as of yet unkept?

We know that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s policies need to be regionalized because one size does not fit all when determining local needs. We also know that there are challenges to the way that our government has instituted the mortgage stress tests. There is a lot to be done, and people’s lives are depending on action.

Between all of these subtle adjustments and larger policy discussions, we also know now that the federal “right to housing” legislation will continue moving forward. But what does that look like, and how will it be measured?

Liberal Party of Canada housing advocate Adam Vaughan made one remark at that pre-election National Housing Debate that has stuck with me ever since and still rings true today.

“If you don’t step up funding to repairs for non-profit housing, you will lose stock faster than you can build it.”

The stage play is underway again, and the theatre of politics in our current soundbite culture often makes for interesting reading material. So before the mass fundraising appeals and “ah gotcha” moments, my appeal to our Parliamentarians is to remember that your mandate is not limited to those who vote for you and those that do not. This system is supposed to be about making things better, not leaving problems to multiply.

Here’s to hoping this next term of government continues the shift towards ending chronic homelessness, supporting the disadvantaged, and offering our most vulnerable citizens more than additional names on a list of those that we have long since failed … ones that can no longer speak for themselves.

Leigh Zachary Bursey

Leigh Bursey


Leigh Bursey is a 33-year-old three-term City Councillor in Brockville, Ontario. Leigh is a director for Brockville Pride, and a member of the Canadian National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness lived experience working group. He is also Executive Director of Tiny Home Alliance Canada. Leigh is an author, musician (with his group Project Mantra), talk show host, activist, and a pro wrestler. Leigh is a former homeless youth, a punk rocker and a public speaker.

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