A picture of Leilani Farha with an urban background.
Former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing Leilani Farha says Nanaimo's housing crisis should be understood as a human rights crisis at a recent webinar hosted by Vancouver Island University. Photo courtesy of Leilani Farha
Nanaimo Vancouver Island

Reporter’s Notebook: Nanaimo’s ‘human rights crisis’

Adequate housing is a fundamental human right, and requires a human rights response, says Leilani Farha, former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.
Julie Chadwick October 21, 2021

This Reporter’s Notebook was originally published in Nanaimo This Week, your weekly local newsletter. This format is intended to share the reflections of our reporters.


Last week I attended a webinar hosted by Vancouver Island University Leilani Farha, former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing. It was part of the university’s Engaged Citizens Speaker Series, which launched in 2019 with topics and speakers that focus on “social challenges, opportunities and the community around us.”

I first became acquainted with Leilani’s work via an incredible documentary called Push, which aired on TVO last December. The film follows Leilani as she travels all over the world in an attempt to understand and investigate the global housing crisis.

What she discovered informed much of my own research into Nanaimo’s housing crisis for our series Making Rent, and I was curious to hear what she had to say in her current position as global director of The Shift, which describes itself as an international movement to secure the right to housing.

In her introduction, Leilani categorized adequate housing as a fundamental human right, “because the consequences of a lack of adequate housing are so severe,” and jeopardizes human dignity, a person’s security, their health and overall well-being and life itself. 

“In a country as wealthy as Canada, when large portions of the population are without adequate housing, not only do we have a housing crisis, we have a human rights crisis on our hands,” she said.

“If you have a human rights crisis you should have a human rights response,” she later added.

She went on to cite a variety of statistics around housing in Canada that highlighted the overrepresentation of Indigenous people, people with disabilities and single mothers among those who are unhoused or in “core need” of housing.

In terms of recommendations for local governments, Leilani acknowledged that many cities like Nanaimo find themselves in what amounts to a “harsh landscape.”

“First of all, homelessness must be addressed urgently and creatively by local governments, and local governments know this. But I say this strongly: That does not mean evicting people or removing people or displacing people from parks when there really is no viable place for them to go,” she said. “And it certainly does not mean policing or criminalizing people living in homelessness. That is contrary to human rights.”

All levels of government have helped to create homelessness in Canada, so it seems contradictory to then penalize people for it, she added.

Acknowledging that dealing with the problem creatively on a local level was “not easy” due to the lack of resources, Leilani then recommended that city governments band together to “demand more” from provincial and federal governments.

She also recommended that local governments also demand a multi-stakeholder table be struck on a federal level that includes Indigenous governments and private sector actors to figure out how to solve the problem.

“Cities have to start developing rights-based housing strategies, and that’s not a policy here or a program there,” she said. “[It’s] an overarching framework under which other policies and programs would sit … and emphasize equality, inclusion and social cohesion.”

I highly recommend watching the entire discussion, which was emceed by Dr. Pam Shaw, director of VIU’s master of community planning and the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region research institute. It includes presentations from city councillor and past co-chair of the city’s health and housing task force, Erin Hemmens, as well as VIU researcher Dr. Michael Lait, whose current work is focused on how people’s quality of life and housing situations have been affected by the pandemic.

Jump to Leilani Farha’s presentation here

Jump to Erin Hemmens presentation here

Jump to Michael Lait’s presentation here

This Reporter’s Notebook was originally published in Nanaimo This Week, your weekly local newsletter.