A government that fights against its own people cannot claim to wage war to promote democracy. Yet this is the case in Canada where the government violates the basic right to housing while using resources to fuel its violence in Afghanistan. Let’s consider some recent history to better understand the connection.
Fifteen years ago, Canada’s federal government scrapped its national housing program, turning Canada into the only industrialized country without one. Federal funds for new housing fell to zero, while about 1 percent of the budget went to maintaining inadequate existing public housing. Soon after, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, followed the neoliberal trend and cancelled social housing projects that would have housed 40,000 people, declaring that the "market" would provide.
Together with sweeping cuts to social services and other neoliberal economic reforms, the effect on poor people was devastating. Among other predictable consequences, homelessness increased dramatically. By 1998, the newly formed Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) was leading a campaign to declare homelessness a "national disaster." Canada’s largest cities and civil society demanded an extra 1 percent of the budget for housing. The federal government refused, but released some emergency relief funding in response to pressure.
Now, 300,000 people experience homelessness annually. In a statement after his October 2007 visit, the UN Special Rapporteur on housing observed "the deep and devastating impact of this national crisis…including a large number of deaths," and noted federal inaction as its cause.
It is no coincidence that military spending is skyrocketing to the highest level since WWII, at $18.2 billion or 8.5 percent of the budget. In the Persian Gulf Region, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean, Canada’s military has been deployed to forcefully expand the same system that dominates our own government and exploits us here: Canadian warships enforced years of Anglo-led sanctions that killed over a million Iraqis; Canadian warplanes played a lead role in the intensive NATO bombing that destroyed the civil infrastructure of Serbia; and elite Canadian soldiers participated in a violent coup against the democratic movement of poor people in Haiti.
Now Canada is fighting another U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. This is aggressive counter-insurgency warfare to prop up a government of warlords chosen to cooperate with NATO’s military goals. The government is a "photocopy of the Taliban" under which things are getting "progressively worse" for women and all Afghans, says feminist Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya, among many other human rights advocates.
Only 17 percent of people in Canada want this combat to continue and most want it to stop. Yet Canada’s government spends $100 million per month backing one side in a civil war, intensifying divisions and popular alienation, and destabilizing the region—90 percent of this sum goes to war, not reconstruction or aid.
More than a "key tool" to fight poverty, housing is crucial because empowered life depends on it. "Without housing or means, we are cut off from the very things we need for democratic engagement," explains Victor Willis, executive director of a social agency for poor and homeless people in Toronto. When the government denies us housing, notes Willis, it "completely disenfranchises a large group of people."
This disenfranchisement affects far more people than the 300,000 homeless. The housing crisis impacts millions of people in Canada who must spend so much of their means on often inadequate shelter that other areas of life are compromised.
In response, as always, people have organized to fight back. Recently the TDRC and the Canadian Peace Alliance launched the national Housing Not War campaign. In less than 3 months about 160 organizations and thousands of individuals have signed its declaration demanding the government end its war in Afghanistan and shift funding from war to peace with an extra 1 percent of the budget for social housing. By tying together causes of anti-poverty and peace, Housing Not War combines progressive movements to build broader pressure for change.
On February 7, over 100 activists gathered at Finance Minster Jim Flaherty’s office in Toronto’s financial district to demand housing not war. One of the speakers, Josephine Grey, urged us, "Remember, that is our money."
Andrew Mindszenthy is a Toronto activist involved in a range of issues. He is the TDRC Housing Not War outreach coordinator.