Bruce Porter Reflects on CERA’s 30th Anniversary

“CERA was formed in the heyday of the equality rights movement in Canada. That’s why it has it that cumbersome name that no one can remember or say. In the 1980s in Canada, “equality rights” were in the air. Equality seeking groups began the decade by fighting for and winning a radical reframing of non-discrimination rights in the new Canadian Charter to have them renamed as “equality rights.” Section 15 of the Charter was reworded to ensure not only that laws and policies should not discriminate, but also that they would provide “equal benefit” to disadvantaged groups. People with disabilities were recognized for the first time. Following on that victory at the national level, hearings were held in 1986 at the Ontario Legislature, into a proposed “Equality Rights Statute Law Amendment Act”, intended to ensure that the Human Rights Code and other provincial legislation conformed with the new understanding of equality in s.15 of the Charter. Of course, the government had left a lot out of its draft bill. That’s when we formed the Committee for Equal Access to Apartments – the precursor of CERA, and got to work. Along with a lot of others…

Those hearings were incredibly energizing and demonstrated a new sense of collaboration and shared purpose among equality seeking groups.  The Committee for Equal Access to Apartments mobilized low income tenants from across the province  working to advocate for two amendments to the Human Rights Code to address prominent systemic issues in housing at that time.  One was to remove an exemption that allowed landlords to designate their buildings as “adult only” and exclude families with children.  This had become a convenient way for landlords to “gentrify” their apartments while low income renting families were simply left out the tight rental market.  The other was to extend protections from age discrimination in housing to include 16 and 17 year olds in need of housing.  We won on both counts, but only after an unprecedented number of compelling submissions at Queen’s Park from low income parents, mostly women, and young people describing the effects of discrimination in housing.

Our own discrete victories, however, were part of a wave of victories in which all the different equality seeking groups collaborated. Sexual orientation was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination; protections for people with disabilities were strengthened and adverse effect discrimination was more expansively addressed.  During all of the collaborative work,  marginalized groups in housing, particularly those living in poverty, became part of the human rights movement in a new way.  It became obvious that we needed an organization to continue to promote human rights in hosing and to make hard won protections work for groups that are too often ignored.   We knew it was a daunting task, but I don’t think any of imagined that CERA would still be around three decades later.

CERA’s ideals are perhaps further from being realized now than they ever have been.  However, it is hard to imagine where we would be without CERA’s work over the last 30 years.  CERA has been a voice for the people who don’t usually get heard.   It has changed the way we think about equality in housing, raised awareness of the right to adequate housing and changed the way the international human rights system works.  It has achieved precedent setting recognition of income related discrimination, addressed eviction prevention in new and innovative ways and changed the way we think about equality and human rights in housing.  CERA changed me and so many others over the years and through all of us, informed what has been done in many other places around the world.  It has been an incubator for a more inclusive human rights movement in Canada and internationally.

For CERA to have survived for thirty years without any stable operational funding, surviving through hostile governments and times of austerity measures, is an historic accomplishment, not only for the institution, but also for the ideals for which CERA stands.   It has survived because of the dedication and commitment of staff, board, volunteers and members to a vision that has only become more relevant, more necessary,  more compelling over the course of those years.

When we opened CERA’s phone line 30 years ago, the thing we would hear from people more often than anything else was this:  “You’re the first organization that has really listened to me and taken my concerns seriously.”  CERA still does that.  The acronym of a little organization, with a cumbersome name has come to resonate for a lot of people who have felt they were heard for the first time and for a lot of human rights advocates and human rights institutions who have learned from CERA how to hear human rights claims in a new way.

“CERA”.  It has become a word in its own right, with the historic reference to the equality rights wave of 30 years ago still resonating in its identity.

CERA.   30 years old.  Imagine!  It makes me feel quite proud of all of us!!”

Bruce Porter co-founded CERA in 1987, and is currently the Executive Director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre.

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