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UPDATE: Is Toronto violating the right to water and sanitation?

This past August, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, released her report on the state of these rights in the United States. Her report said, “All municipalities (should) provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation to homeless people, including through ensuring the opening and regular maintenance and upkeep of public restrooms, as well as availability of public water fountains, including during the night.”

This weekend the United Nations Examiner reported, “A United Nations leader on Friday accused California’s capital city of human rights violations. In a sweeping attack on perceived human rights violations in wealthier nations, de Albuquerque took aim at Sacramento. ‘I was especially shocked by what I saw in Sacramento, California, where the city decided to shut down or to restrict the opening hours of public restrooms,’ de Albuquerque said, ‘forcing homeless people to improvise other types of solutions to be able to exercise the right to sanitation.’ ‘Open defecation, open urination have been criminalized,’ de Albuquerque claimed. ‘So what happens is that someone can be criminalized just because he/she does not have a place to do his physiological needs.'”

That prompts the question, does Canada’s largest city comply with the human right to water and sanitation with respect to the homeless?

There are public washrooms in Toronto – but they are limited. A progressive city councillor recently described them as ‘unsanitary’. In terms of accessibility, it’s not a complete picture, but for example, there are seven public washrooms in High Park, some of which are open only seasonally and all of which are only open from 8 am to dusk. There are 10 sets of public washrooms located on Toronto’s public subway system, but all are located within the paid fare area, and thus accessible only after the fare has been paid. And last year, the City of Toronto installed 20 public washrooms, but there is a $1 per use charge.

With water fountains, there are 671 of them in Toronto’s public parks – but they are turned off in the fall. According to a Toronto Star article, while “each spring they are tested to meet provincial drinking water standards” and “spot checks are conducted through the season” the “basins and bubbler heads are not sanitized with any regularity.” It is recommended that the fountains should be cleaned on a weekly basis. That news report, from August 2010, said, “The Star collected and analyzed bacteria samples swabbed from spouts of 20 public water fountains and free-standing coolers across the city. …Half of the drinking water spouts tested…showed bacteria levels researchers said were ‘too high to count’.”


On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the right to water and sanitation, and on October 1, 2010 the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that the right to water and sanitation is contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding and equal to all other human rights. Just a few months after these historic resolutions at the United Nations, Rob Ford was elected the mayor of Toronto on October 25, 2010 and took office on December 1, 2010. That makes Ford the first mayor of Toronto post-recognition of the right to water and sanitation.

Could the City of Toronto be convinced to invest in public washrooms and drinking water fountains to meet these human rights obligations to the homeless? It doesn’t appear likely.

Currently, Toronto city council is debating severe budget cuts. City manager Joe Pennachetti is backing $100 million in cuts including:

  • eliminating late-night TTC bus service
  • cutting 2,000 subsidized child care spaces
  • reducing city grants
  • lowering standards for snow-clearing
  • curtailing environmental programs, including the Toronto Atmospheric Fund
  • selling or closing Riverdale Farm
  • selling, leasing or otherwise ceasing to operate the Toronto Zoo
  • library closures and reductions to library hours
  • cutting all city department budgets by 10 percent
  • eliminating or reducing a program that provides dental care to the poor.
  • reducing the development of new affordable housing
  • reviewing program user fees with a view to increasing them

For a fuller list, go to http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=182633.

As unacceptable as these proposed cuts are, Ford has said they are “just scraping the surface” of what needs to be done and insists that $774 million in cuts are needed. The true budget gap has been estimated at less than $500 million.

Yesterday, the City’s executive committee, dominated by Ford’s supporters, heard deputations from more than 300 city residents against the cuts. The Toronto Star reports this morning, “Ford, who had long refused to take any proposed cuts off the table, told a meeting of his executive committee that he would (now) not support closing libraries or reducing street-cleaning and snow-clearing standards to balance the budget.” The executive committee votes today on the budget cut recommendations. Then on September 26-27, Toronto city council will vote on the cuts.