All posts by Leilani Farha

Putting 2 and 2 Together: Access to Justice and Articling

By David Wiseman, Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa

The staff of CERA, and CERA’s many allies and friends (including me), have often lamented the inability to provide more help to more people who are claiming or defending their equality and housing rights in the rental housing market in Ontario.  There is a significant ‘unmet need’ for the assistance that CERA provides to tenants experiencing discrimination and one of the biggest barriers is lack of funding for more staff.   For instance, CERA does not have sufficient funding to regularly employ an articling student.  And, unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to CERA getting more funding for more staff is that decision-makers in our Province never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to find ways to support organizations like CERA.  Lack of funding for an articling student is a case in point.

The most recent example of a potential missed opportunity is the Law Society of Upper Canada’s announcement of a new Taskforce to look at articling in Ontario. The LSUC is the organization that regulates lawyers (and paralegals) in Ontario.  Articling is the year-long on-the-job training that law graduates have to do before they can qualify as lawyers.  The Taskforce was announced after the LSUC learned that there is a shortage of articling positions in Ontario.  This just 3 years after an earlier taskforce had prompted a renewed effort of LSUC and the legal profession to generate more articling positions.

The establishment of the most recent Taskforce threatens to be another missed opportunity to help those, like CERA, who work in an area of unmet needs because the Taskforce isn’t mandated to address the problem of unmet needs.  In theory, if the Taskforce sticks to its terms of reference, it could go about its work trying to ‘fix’ articling without even considering the role that articling could play in improving the ability of organizations like CERA to continue to reduce unmet legal needs.  This is an especially strange thing for the LSUC to allow its own Taskforce to do, given that the LSUC was a key partner in the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project that issued a first report on unmet legal needs in 2010.  The Civil Legal Needs Project documented the significant extent of unmet legal needs in Ontario – including in relation to rental housing disputes — and shone much needed light on the broader problem of access to justice.

The LSUC needs to put 2 and 2 together and integrate a consideration of unmet legal needs and access to justice into the work of the Taskforce on articling.   CERA is just one example of the organizations that could end up with valuable extra capacity if this is done.  After all, the LSUC is charged with regulating the legal profession in the public interest.  Looking at articling without looking at access to justice seems more like putting the self-interest of lawyers above the interests of the public.  Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out that way.


Talking About Money

Talking About Money

Someone recently said to me, “talking about money is harder than talking about death”.

CERA, in partnership with Canada Without Poverty (CWP), recently received a grant from TD’s Financial Literacy Program to do what a lot of folks have told us would be impossible: to talk about the taboo, uncomfortable subject of “money” with people from across the country who barely have any.

A few weeks ago we piloted our first session with a group of 18 people who are living on very limited incomes in the city of Ottawa.  And contrary to all warnings – this group couldn’t stop talking.  They were women and men, young and old, Aboriginal, Canadian born, newcomers, disabled and not, single mothers and two parent families.  They had just one thing in common: they are all making ends meet, just barely.

So, why was this diverse group so willing to talk about money?  I think it’s because we did things a little differently this time round.  We turned the tables. We admitted that if this group of people have the lowest incomes in the country and are able to make ends meet, they must have a vast amount of expertise in money management. We asked them to share that expertise with us so that we could document it and then share it with other people, like those who get to make decisions about how money is spent in this country:  Jim Flaherty – the Minister of Finance; bankers; and financial literacy trainers.  And share they did. From rolling loose change, to never buying anything that isn’t 2nd hand, to using foodbanks and pay-as-you-go telephones, to developing sophisticated banking techniques, we learned how the poor endure a whole lot of indignities, to survive.

And we learned something even more important in this session.  By recognizing the participants as experts in managing their money (rather than assuming we are the experts because we have money) we unwittingly provided them with an opportunity to feel some pride in their poverty, even if only for a few hours.




CERA Joins VOICES-VOIX Coalition on Women’s Rights and Democracy – Rally and Press Conference

VOICES-VOIX is a non-partisan coalition of organizations and individuals defending democracy, free speech and transparency in Canada.  CERA is one of the over 200 member organizations.  CERA’s Executive Director has spoken at several press conferences and meetings on behalf of the coalition.

On the day before the Day for Democracy (April 6th) VOICES-VOIX held a press conference on Parliament Hill to draw attention to the demise of democracy as we enter the second week of a federal election.  CERA’s Executive Director talked about the lack of access to information, the control of information and the demise of Democracy in Canada.  At the Day for Democracy Rally on the following day, she spoke about the assault on women’s human rights and equality.  Over 200 people attended the rally in Ottawa. Speakers included: Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International, Gerry Barr, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for International Cooperation, MP Paul Dewar (NDP), as well as representatives from the Liberal Party of Canada and the Green Party.

Day for Democracy Rally – The Assault on Women’s Human Rights and Equality (Speaking Notes)

I am Leilani Farha, the Executive Director of CERA – the Centre on Equality Rights in Accommodation.  CERA is one of the groups whose funding was slashed by the current government because we dared to protect women’s equality rights in Canada.

Not so long ago I spent the bulk of my time working across the country with low income women and advocates to protect the right to housing for the poorest women – disabled women, Aboriginal women, single mothers – to make sure they would have a decent place to live.

These days I spend my time giving speeches and attending rallies to talk about the assault on democracy and more specifically the erosion of women’s equality rights in Canada.

It still makes me shake my head. How did we get here?  And by here I mean where voices are silenced, where information is controlled, where human rights and women’s equality are reviled, and as we saw yesterday, where the young and politically engaged are profiled and excluded.

I used to have pride in Canada as one of the most progressive democracies, and champions of peace and human rights.  Now, Canada feels like hostile territory.   Hostile to me personally as an Arab Canadian and to my work, particularly on women’s rights.

Am I exaggerating? Is there real hostility against dissenting voices and  women’s rights in this country?  The answer is an unequivocal yes.  Let’s review some facts:

  • The current  government cancelled the national child care program and replaced it with a paltry taxable $100 a month payment to parents with children under 6.
  • They scrapped the equality portion of the Court Challenges Program a program which made constitutional rights accessible to ordinary people.
  • They attacked Status of Women Canada (an already fledgling department): they cut the research budget, they closed 12 of 16 offices across the country and they ceased funding any organization engaged in advocacy, lobbying, or law reform.
  • They gutted pay equity legislation, and stripped it of its meaning.
  • They introduced a stimulus budget  which basically offered nothing of relevance to women and they
  • Eliminated the mandatory long form census – which provided information for example on the extent of women’s unpaid work at home.


There are real ramifications for these decisions.

Women’s groups and human rights groups are afraid to speak out – there is no national voice on women’s rights; women are not at political tables and our interests are not being represented or heard.

Because women’s groups across the country are basically decimated and because we have had systematic policies that have not considered women’s interests and needs – there are a host of social and economic repercussions emerging for the most marginalized groups:

– Increasing unemployment – official unemployment rates approached double digits.

– Fewer women than ever are able to qualify for employment insurance benefits in the face of job loss.  And if you can qualify for employment insurance what you receive is 20% lower now than during the last recession in the 1990s.

– There have been dramatic increases in food bank and meal program use. In the last year we’ve seen an 18 percent increase.   “the largest year-over-year increase on record” (Food Banks Canada, 2009: 1-2).

– Also, we are seeing increased use of bankruptcy and credit counselling services, and impacts on health services, mental health counselling, and suicide and crisis intervention programs.

There is only one thing to do in the face of a democracy under attack: take to the streets, BE LOUD and use our VOICES COLLECTIVELY TO RECLAIM Democracy as we know it.



VOICES-VOIX Press Conference

Speaking Notes: Leilani Farha

5 April 2011


Good Morning,

I am Leilani Farha the Executive Director of CERA – the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, a human rights organization working with some of the poorest and most marginalized people in Canada.  CERA is a member of the VOICES-VOIX coalition because we are gravely concerned with the demise of democracy in Canada over the last five years.

If the Government of Canada can’t get democracy right, who can?

In recent years one of the most direct attacks on democracy has been this government’s attempt to control information.  Of course, access to information that is reliable, accurate, and non-partisan is one of the fundamental pillars of a democracy.  Information animates democracy.  Access to information allows us to hold our government’s accountable. Only with reliable, non-partisan information can we engage in healthy debate. Only with access to information can we develop policy that is based in real needs and experiences.

The recent curtailment of access to information and the control of information has been raised most loudly by journalists across the country, whose Access to Information requests often lay languishing on a shelf in some government office somewhere.  And when the access to information request is granted, the information returned is often gutted of content.

But the control of information net has been cast much wider than this.  It has been used, and I’d say used very effectively to mask what’s happening to some of the most marginalized groups in the country – specifically marginalized and disadvantaged groups of women.

This has been achieved with three swift moves:

  1. The Harper Government got rid of the research arm of Status of Women Canada. This was the only national research body whose mandate was to research and assess how women and different groups of women were faring in the country. Were women achieving equality in different areas: employment, housing, politics, on reserve, off reserve … The research arm of SWC had a national and international reputation for groundbreaking and important research on women’s rights and related issues.
  2. The change to the mandate of SWC banning the funding of groups who undertake advocacy, and the resultant elimination of a vast number of women’s organizations.  Organizations like the National Association of Women and the Law; and the Sisters in Spirit Campaign. Organizations that engaged in research, generated information about women’s inequality, and then used that information to generate debate, and to inform policy discussions.
  3. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census which is widely understood as providing information on the socio-eco conditions of the most marginalized groups, information that would not otherwise be accessed but for the mandatory nature of the census.  And the elimination of questions regarding unpaid household work in the household survey, which is considered a critical measure in revealing gender inequality.


Lets be clear about what happens when you eliminate this type of information from the public domain, information about women’s poverty, women’s earnings, legal barriers to women’s equality, when you muzzle information about Aboriginal women’s horrific experiences of going missing and being murdered.

What happens is the narrative is controlled; you get a pretty rosy picture of a land of milk and honey where there are no women’s advocacy organizations because women have achieved full equality in all realms.


But this is Canada, not Never Never Land.

We need a government that understands and respects the fragile nature of democracy, and that isn’t afraid to be judged by the light of day.

We need a government that will re-instate the mandatory long-form census, reform Canada’s Access to Information Act, and restore funding to women’s advocacy organizations.

Thank you.




Women, Canada and The World: Is Canada Failing?

Women, Canada and The World: Is Canada Failing?

This Ottawa event, attended by approximately 100 people, was organized by the McLeod Group, co-sponsored by Embassy Magazine and hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs on February 18th, 2011. Huguette Labelle, Chancellor, Ottawa University presided.

Participants discussed gender equality and women’s rights. The panellists were Rieky Stuart (Senior Associate, Gender at Work), Sandeep Prasad (Executive Director, Action Canada for Population Development) and Leilani Farha (Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation).

View CPAC video by clicking here. [CERA’s Executive Director, Leilani Farha, appears at 35.00 min]

CERA Presentation (Word doc) – Leilani Farha

CERA Presents to Legislative Committee on Province’s Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy

The Province of Ontario released its Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy in late 2010.  Bill 140, Strong Communities Through Affordable Housing Act, 2011, legislation which has passed 2nd reading and is now before the Legislature at the Comittee on Justice Policy, is the implementing legislation for the Housing Strategy.

CERA and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC) appeared before the Committee on 24 March 2011, to encourage the Committee to adopt a series of amendments to Bill 140 to ensure that it is in keeping with the provinces’ commitments under international human rights law.

CERA provided an overview of the 5 components that Bill 140 must include to ensure it is in compliance with international human rights standards based on what UN human rights bodies and officials have indicated must be in a housing strategy.  SRAC then provided the Committee with an overview of practical amendments that could be made to Bill 140 to integrate the 5 components.   Both the Wellesley Institute and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario submissions were supportive of this approach.

Committee members from all three parties expressed interest in the CERA and SRAC presentations and the suggested amendments.  CERA and SRAC will  work collaboratively with other organizations concerned with housing rights and will continue to press for human rights amendments to Bill 140.  For more on human rights accountability of the province and Bill 140 click here.

CERA’s presentation

Summary of UN Consensus

SRAC’s presentation

Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario presentation

Bill C304: A National Housing Strategy

Bill C304: A National Housing Strategy

They said it couldn’t be done. The Bloc Québécois would never change its mind and support Bill C-304, An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians, without an exemption and compensation clause. And, without Bloc support for the Bill, it was certain to die on 3rd reading as the NDP and Liberals don’t have enough MPs to carry a vote and the Conservatives appear to be categorically opposed to the Bill.

On 20 October 2010, the Bloc did precisely what everyone said they wouldn’t.  They changed their position.  In the first hour of debate at 3rd reading of the Bill, the Bloc indicated that they would support the Bill if it included a simple amendment attesting to their unique expertise and jurisdiction in the area of housing.  As a result, Bill C304 went from being well meaning but ultimately doomed dream to a possible reality.

What was the catalyst for this about-face? Was it the inclusion of human rights principles in the Bill – principles the Bloc believes in and is proud of – and thus reluctant to vote against?  Was it that Quebec housing groups articulated, in no uncertain terms, that they wanted the Bloc to support this Bill? Was it that dozens of national organizations endorsed the Bill? Was it the cross-country day of action – the Red Tent Campaign – held in cities the day before third reading? Was it pressure from the NPD and Liberals who had invested considerably in the Bill?

In all likelihood there was no single catalyst. It was, probably, the result a confluence of all of these factors and pressures. But what we do know is that it didn’t come about by luck or chance.  These days, political victories for marginalized groups, even relatively small victories of this nature, are only won when individuals, organizations, communities and government officials of different political stripes, share a vision, collaborate and work hard till the bitter end.

“So, what do you do?”

Whenever I socialize with new people, I always dread the question: “So, what do you do?”   Not because I hate to be identified by my work.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  “What I do” is intimately connected with who I am.  No, I hate the question because once I mutter the words, “human rights lawyer” the response from my inquisitor is inevitable and invariable: a slight pause, a smile of sorts and then in earnest, “Good for you.  You must sleep well at night”.

Ha! Sleep well? Me? My sleep is consistently interrupted for one of two reasons:  anxiety or work demands.  The anxiety is caused by the fear that CERA won’t survive past the next fiscal year; that the 20+ years of commitment to addressing housing discrimination experienced by some of the most disadvantaged groups in Ontario will go up in smoke. Poof! Gone! So the work I do at night that keeps me from blissful slumber is mostly funding proposals that my colleagues and I have to churn out to try to keep the anxiety and fear at bay and the money rolling in.   Other nights it’s the administrative work I didn’t have time to do during the day, or, it’s cramming into the wee hours, the fun and creative aspects of our work …

Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do and I have an insane commitment to CERA – the little NGO that could! It’s an organization with integrity that does creative, cutting-edge, essential work. Plus, I wear jeans every day if I want to, I benefit from family-friendly personnel policies, I don’t have to ride an elevator to get to my office, and my colleagues are some of the most incredible people I know.  But, let’s call a spade a spade:

Working at a human rights NGO is often less about “doing good” and more about “staying alive” just to do some good.

In the current world order (in Canada), where NGOs, especially those working to enforce human rights, do not curry favor with government funders, and where core funding is a “no-no” in the funding world, you can well imagine that at CERA we spend a lot of our time writing funding proposals, coordinating a slew of volunteers and doing as much work in-house as possible because we haven’t the resources to hire anything but a small staff complement. And correspondingly, we are compelled to spend less of our time doing the work that is actually meaningful, that changes peoples’ lives, and that helps us get up in the morning – regardless of how we have slept!

I admit, I long for more nights spent wide awake worrying about how we can best convince a landlord to adopt a human rights-friendly housing policy.