Sitting across from Leilani Farha at a corner table in Ottawa’s
Fauna Food + Bar, I am exhausted just hearing about her work. She’s executive
director of Canada Without Poverty – a think tank and advocacy group geared to
the daunting task of alleviating poverty in this country. At the same time, she
is also the United Nations’ current “special rapporteur” on adequate housing, a
position that sees her travel around the globe and comment on key housing
problems and crises. Oh yes, and she also has two young children.
But the trim 47-year-old seems
to have boundless energy to tackle the seemingly intractable issues that have
created enormous inequality between rich and poor. At the very basic level, she
says she has taken on these jobs because “I want to make change.” And the UN
position, in particular, is “an avenue to make change on a global basis,” she
Still, alleviating poverty is
an uphill battle, to say the least. Even in a wealthy country such as Canada
there are as many as four million poor people, depending on how you measure it,
and 250,000 people are homeless. In less-developed countries, the numbers are
“I vacillate between feeling
like, ‘Yes, with others I can make change,’ and feeling like a speck,” she
says. “I bounce back and forth between those two positions.”
Ms. Farha did not grow up poor,
but she does have a background that made her keenly aware of what it is like to
be an outsider. Her parents are both of Lebanese descent, and she felt some
hostility growing up in a very white Ottawa neighbourhood, where “Arabs go
home” was once scrawled on her family’s back fence.
“That constellation of things –
the Arabness, and discrimination my parents suffered and connections with the
conflict in the Middle East – it informs my identity and who I am. It informs
my subject positioning in the world. And certainly the dinner conversation was
political,” she said. “I was pretty justice-oriented from a young age.”
While studying English
literature at the University of Toronto, she took a summer job at a youth
employment centre, and that helped tilt her toward social work as a graduate
program. A combined master’s degree in law and social work brought the justice,
policy and politics together in one program.
Her field has taken her to Geneva,
where she worked at an organization that promoted global housing rights, and to
Toronto, where she ran a non-profit that tried to prevent evictions and housing
discrimination. In 2012, she took the top job at Canada Without Poverty – the
former National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO) – which scrapes by with a
staff of four and financial support from individual donors and church and
labour groups. At one time, the government gave it some base funding, but those
days are long gone.
Ms. Farha’s approach has always
been to look at poverty in a human-rights framework. That means the starting
point is that poverty violates a number of inherent human rights, no matter
where it exists.
“You can take the
least-developed country or you can take the most-developed country and the fact
exists that there is a human right to adequate housing, or the right to
adequate food,” she says. “It imposes on states, and on national and
subnational governments, certain obligations.”
One of Canada Without Poverty’s
key positions is that this country needs to develop a national plan to cut
“The route to go is a national
anti-poverty strategy that would include a national homelessness strategy, a
national adequate-housing strategy, and a national child-care policy. That would
be a big step, because it would be an admission that the federal government has
a role to play, and that it has international human-rights obligations.”
There is no silver bullet, she
acknowledges, but she insists that progress can be made if there are
co-ordinated efforts at all political levels – and federal government
involvement, which has been lacking. It is “ludicrous” that a country such as
Canada with its resources and sophistication does not have a national plan to
fight poverty, she says.
Specifically, a national
child-care plan would be particularly helpful for poor single parents, she
says, while some kind of rent-supplement system would make a huge difference
for those facing sky-high housing costs.
And while many provinces and
municipalities have made a firm commitment to cut poverty, and have tried some
innovative approaches, few have measurable goals and timelines, or a review
mechanism, she says.
Ms. Farha also has a message
for Canada’s business community: Think about the impact of your decisions on
low-income Canadians. Is there a way to keep high bank fees or phone bills from
hurting those who can least afford them? Are you paying a living wage to your
employees so they don’t need to hold two jobs or make regular trips to food
banks? Are you putting yourself in the shoes of your employees or customers who
have a hard time making ends meet, or who are sending money back to support
family members in other countries?
Ms. Farha thinks that, at the
very least, Canada could eliminate homelessness. “I think that is solvable. We
are one of the richest countries in the world. Even in the middle of the
recession, we were still doing quite well compared to other countries. We are
not in the situation of Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain. I think we could do it,
if we set our minds to it.”
There is certainly more to the
issue of poverty than just handing over more money to poor people, she says.
While poverty is partly about a lack of funds, it really is a social condition.
“If we just give poor people
money, do you think that would end stigmatization, discrimination, exclusion,
etc.? I don’t think so. How much money would you have to give them to have them
move to the middle class, or to avoid those kinds of discrimination? The person
who has been poor – let’s say 20 years of poverty, or 15 years in and out of
poverty with or without a disability – that stays with you and informs who you
are. You can’t boil it down to money.”
She points out that poverty is
enormously costly to Canada, putting an extra burden on the health-care and
criminal justice systems, in addition to the huge amounts spent on homeless
shelters and other supports.
At times, it seems incongruous
to be speaking about poverty while enjoying a trendy Ottawa restaurant’s lovely
lunch – roasted eggplant soup and asparagus salad for her, swordfish and pasta
Ms. Farha acknowledges that her
personal life is middle-class, although she earns considerably less running
Canada Without Poverty than she would practising as a lawyer. “I think that I
have deep empathy and I am working pretty hard, with very little wages. But I
am paid. I am not paid really poorly or anything.”
She also appreciates – perhaps
more than most people – the little luxuries of life. When our server delivers
warm milk to accompany her after-lunch coffee, she says: “We live in a totally
uncivilized world, butthisis very civilized.”
Ms. Farha’s work with the
United Nations has given exposure to some of the most difficult global housing
issues that make Canada’s seem mild by comparison.
She was appointed a little more
than a year ago as the special rapporteur on adequate housing, an unpaid job,
although her expenses are covered. Her task is to report to the UN on specific
housing situations that arise in problem areas around the world.
Ms. Farha has so far been to
Cape Verde, a tiny island nation off the west coast of Africa that is trying to
implement a social-housing program, and to Serbia, where the housing issues
involve refugees, migrants and a transformation of collective home ownership to
a market-driven system.
She has also commented on
emergency shelters for migrants in the Netherlands, and the demolition of
Palestinian homes in Israel. And she made an unofficial trip to Detroit to look
into the situation where water was shut off to poor residents when they
couldn’t pay their bills.
Currently, Ms. Farha is working
on a report to the UN about housing problems in cities, as the world
accelerates toward mass urbanization. That’s an enormously daunting and complex
issue, but she is willing to tackle it.
And, she acknowledges, despite
the complex problems, there has been some progress. Canada has made a dent in
child poverty, and made big steps in cutting poverty among seniors. At the same
time, there is more public awareness of the massive gap between rich and poor,
and how more-equal societies are often more likely to prosper than those with
What’s needed the most, she
says, is an awareness among policy-makers around the world that everyone is
part of the human family, and that they need to have real empathy with those
who are suffering. She says they need to put themselves “in the shoes of a
single mom with two teenage daughters who has no bathroom. [We should] try to
do policy from that place.”
Farha, executive director, Canada Without Poverty
of birth: Ottawa
Family: Married to professor David Wiseman; two children, a 12-year-old
daughter and a 10-year-old son.
Education: BA in English literature; a combined law degree and master’s of
social work. Both at University of Toronto.
the Canada Revenue Agency’s audits of charitable organizations: “I actually believe in random audits. I totally agree that
partisan political activities are not acceptable for a charity. It is how [the
Income Tax Act] defines what is political that is so disheartening. They say
that if you do some kind of activity that could possibly lead someone to change
their mind or their opinion about an issue, it is a political activity. Am I
wrong that I find that frightening? My real concern is that they are stifling
freedom of expression. To me, it is Orwellian.”