Canada has emerged as one of Habitat III’s strongest advocates for vulnerable groups

Drawing on a uniquely deep history in the Habitat process, the country’s new Liberal government sees a ‘pure alignment’ between its domestic agenda and the social priorities of the New Urban Agenda.

A marine view of Vancouver. Canada's new Liberal government has chosen to focus particular diplomatic energy on the Habitat III process. (Hannamariah/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

Forty years ago, Justin Trudeau had a more pressing concern than affairs of state: ice cream. As the Vancouver Sun reported in June 1976, the young Trudeau accompanied his father, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, on a tour of the Habitat Forum, a first-of-its-kind space for civil society groups to meet in parallel to a U. N. summit — in this, case the Conference on Human Settlements, better known as Habitat I.

But the elder Trudeau’s chance to take a break from the diplomatic negotiations downtown and mingle with the ragtag assortment of activists, students, scholars and curious onlookers who had set up a makeshift facility across the water on Jericho Beach was interrupted by his 4-year-old son, who according to the newspaper’s account threw a veritable temper tantrum over his desire for a summer treat.

Flash forward four decades and the younger Trudeau is now leading the North American nation that gave birth to Habitat. The Liberal prime minister took office in November after 10 years of Conservative rule, a change in government that signaled a shift toward diplomatic re-engagement. As Justin Trudeau said following his election, “I want to say to this country’s friends all around the world, on behalf of 35 million Canadians — we’re back.”

More than almost any other, this is a country steeped in Habitat legacy. Canada first proposed a global gathering on human settlements in 1972 at the U. N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, later recommended the creation of UN-Habitat, and on the 30th anniversary of Habitat I hosted the World Urban Forum.

But that’s not the only reason that Ottawa has chosen to focus on the third in this series of conferences — Habitat III, being held in October in Quito — during its reawakening as a global player. As Canada’s lead negotiator in the Habitat III talks, Jacques Paquette, told Citiscope, there is “a pure alignment” between Canada’s domestic agenda and the social priorities of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization vision to be adopted next month.

[See: In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights]

While much of the debate around Habitat III is spatial — focusing on the shape and form of cities — for Canada’s federal government, the discussion is social. For instance, how can public policy help human settlements, from multicultural big cities to tiny tundra outposts, provide economic opportunities for all citizens, especially the most vulnerable such as immigrants, refugees, indigenous people, women and girls, the disabled and the LGBT community?

This question has made Canada one of the most vocal countries on social issues in the Habitat III negotiations. Meanwhile, in cities such as Montréal and Vancouver where those issues are playing out on the ground, city governments are gearing up to put their best foot forward in Quito.

Human rights vanguard

Addressing historical injustices against the country’s indigenous population has been on the national docket for some time. In 2008, for example, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to former students of government-run boarding schools that punished children who spoke in their native language. Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has vigorously taken up the issue of LGBT rights, flying a gay pride flag from Parliament Hill for the first time in Canada’s history and becoming the first prime minister to march in a pride parade.

“The Canadian government has been outstanding in reaching out to all Canadians for comments on the Habitat III issues. They are the lead country negotiating wording to include in the New Urban Agenda regarding sexual orientation and LGTBQ rights and women’s rights.”

Ellen Woodsworth
Women Transforming Cities

Trudeau’s photo-ops have trickled down to Canada’s diplomacy, as evidenced by the social perspective on the New Urban Agenda that first came to prominence in a compilation of government comments leaked to Citiscope in July, in which the country called for the document to bulk up its recognition of specific vulnerable groups. The country expended further political capital at formal Habitat III talks in late July with a bid to secure recognition for LGBT rights in the New Urban Agenda and include protections against homophobia.

[See: Gay community sees New Urban Agenda as opportunity for historic acknowledgement]

Paquette, who is associate deputy minister for employment and social development, spoke with Citiscope on the sidelines of those talks. He characterized these moves as an effort to make sure that the New Urban Agenda reflects the priority Canada places on socially inclusive economic growth, where the country’s opportunities are available to all citizens. He described his delegation’s goal as figuring out how to “look at systemic barriers and get rid of them.” While Canada routinely ranks in the global top ten for social indicators, he said, “There is still a lot of work to be done to support inclusive economic growth. We want it to benefit all Canadians.”

Thus far, Canadian outreach has been praised by civil society groups active in the Habitat process. “The Canadian government has been outstanding in reaching out to all Canadians for comments on the Habitat III issues,” Ellen Woodsworth of Women Transforming Cities, an NGO, wrote in an e-mail to Citiscope. “They are the lead country negotiating wording to include in the New Urban Agenda regarding sexual orientation and LGTBQ rights and women’s rights.”

In June, the national government launched an online consultation to solicit views on the New Urban Agenda through the end of September. “To do this work, we need to hear from all Canadians about the realities we face here at home,” Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children and social development, said in a statement. “I am eager to hear your input on strategies the Government is developing to address housing, poverty, employment, climate change and other challenges.”  

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

And Canadians have responded. Already, they have called for a federal urban strategy, affordable housing requirements under the law, a national “Neighbour’s Day” modeled on Québec’s “fête des voisins”, community energy and resilience plans, a nationally funded institute for housing studies and a “housing first” strategy to address homelessness, among others.

Immigration nation

Arguably the most visible aspect of the Canadian social landscape — from big cities to small towns — is immigration. In 2014, Boston Consulting Group placed it third on a list of the world’s top destinations for job seekers.

“It’s not hard to understand how [immigration] can benefit if it is done properly — by providing support to facilitate integration. [This approach] is something that we can share with the international community.”

Jacques Paquette
Canada’s lead negotiator for Habitat III

To understand how thoroughly immigrants are integrated into Canadian society, look at any given Saturday night from October to April. Televisions from coast to coast tune in to Hockey Night in Canada, the marquee matchup of the country’s celebrated sport. Since 2008, the voices of traditional announcers such as Don Cherry — whose stories of playing outdoor ice hockey on a frozen pond epitomize Canadian self-mythology — aren’t the only ones in the broadcast booth. Harnarayan Singh, an observant Sikh who wears a turban, also offers a Punjabi play-by-play of the game, with some of his exuberant goal calls going viral online.

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

Foreigners’ adoption of the national sport is a byproduct of federal pro-immigration policy, which annually admits over 200,000 permanent residents and offers public resources to encourage integration. That approach has placed the country’s five largest cities — Calgary, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver — in the top 20 globally for gross number of foreign-born residents.

“We don’t have to make the argument for immigrants to Canadian society,” Paquette said. “Putting aside the indigenous people one thousand years ago, the entire country was built by immigrants. We have built the country on that principle.”

That mindset meant that the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees earlier this year — with plans to bring that number up to 50,000 by the end of the year — was met with minimal resistance, even while similar appeals have generated public handwringing across the border in the United States and across the Atlantic in several European countries.

[See: Can migration become central to the New Urban Agenda?]

As migration has emerged as a hot topic globally — and one of minor contention in the Habitat III talks — Paquette offers his country’s pro-immigrant stance as an antidote to nativist rhetoric. “We must make sure we don’t associate migrants and refugees with negative outcomes,” he said. “This is not the experience that Canada has. Going back to the fabric of Canada, it is a very diverse society.”

To his mind, the recipe is simple. “It’s not hard to understand how [immigration] can benefit if it is done properly — by providing support to facilitate integration,” he said, noting that this approach “is something that we can share with the international community”.

Housing headaches

Economists generally agree that Canada’s embrace of immigration has helped productivity and the labour market, given a slow native-born fertility rate. As demographer Joe Friesen warned in a 2012 editorial in The Globe and Mail newspaper, if immigration does not remain at pace, “The tax base will shrink, growth will slow and labour shortages will become even more dire. Immigration can’t completely cure a problem of that scale, but it can help to alleviate the symptoms.”

“Why wouldn’t we want to be part of a giant global effort pulling in one direction? That seems like a no-brainer. Given [Vancouver’s] history with Habitat, we could play a very strong role with that.”

Andrea Reimer
Vancouver city councilor

Friesen continued: “Already, in 2012, all the growth in the country’s labour force comes from immigration. Within two decades, barring an improbable baby boom, immigration will account for all population growth too.”

However, in some corners of the country, intensive immigration has come at a price, specifically the rising cost of housing. An August housing report by the Royal Bank of Canada determined that in Vancouver, the average home now costs 90 percent of median income, putting the Pacific coast city well into the realm of unaffordable. Foreign buyers from East Asia are seen as the prime culprit contributing to this trend.

[See: Vancouver policy to create rental housing brings life to the laneways]

The affordability crisis has created more urgency for Trudeau’s Liberal government to deliver on a revamped housing policy — a move that Habitat III’s timing makes all the more propitious, as Canada attempts to recapture its international leadership on the issue.

“We had one of the best housing policies in the world,” said Penny Gurstein, who chairs the planning school at the University of British Columbia. Speaking on the sidelines of a Habitat III preparatory meeting in Vancouver, she told Citiscope, “We built a huge number of quite livable social housing.” In particular she highlighted the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) investment in co-ops that began in 1973, but she cautioned that an experiment with devolution in 1994 effectively meant the end of federal housing policy.

Canadian officials met in June to hash out the basics of a national housing strategy, which they expect to deliver by the end of this year. “This government said it was going to re-establish its leadership in the housing sector,” Paquette told Citiscope, with “very strong, close collaboration between federal and provincial and territorial governments”.

Paquette said the CMHC will re-invest in social and cooperative housing “to make it more affordable but also look at how we can increase accessibility.” Cooperative housing has been discussed at previous Habitat III meetings and garnered a paragraph in the current draft of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Already, Vancouver has taken steps to correct its overheated housing market. In late July, the Vancouver City Council approved a 15 percent foreign-buyers tax. Mayor Gregor Robertson also has floated a vacancy tax on those who do not use their Vancouver home as a primary residence.

Global leader?

Robertson, meanwhile, has been a regular on the international speaking circuit, making appearances last year at a Habitat III preparatory meeting in Montréal and the COP 21 climate summit in Paris. At press time his office could not confirm if he will attend Habitat III, but he’s not alone among Canadian mayors who see global gatherings as an opportunity.

[See: How to advocate within the Habitat III process]

Montréal’s Denis Coderre is expected in Quito to share the city’s experience with metropolitan governance, according to a spokesperson for the Montréal Metropolitan Community. As treasurer of the global network United Cities and Local Governments, the mayor of Kitchener, Berry Vrbanovic, also is expected at Habitat III.

“We’re very influenced by and motivated by what’s happening globally,” Vancouver city councilor Andrea Reimer told Citiscope in January after the municipal government led a worldwide effort ahead of COP 21 to convince cities that they should sign a pledge to adopt 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

With Vancouver committed to the U. N.’s climate agenda, the next step is to contemplate local implementation of its new development framework, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for which Habitat III’s outcome will serve as a roadmap. The prospect of Vancouver continuing to serve as a global leader to promote more equitable and sustainable cities certainly appeals to Reimer.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

“Why wouldn’t we want to be part of a giant global effort pulling in one direction? That seems like a no-brainer,” Reimer said, adding, “Given our history with Habitat, we could play a very strong role with that.”

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