IHRP Alumni Spotlight: Leilani Farha

Karlson Leung (3L) and Faye Williams (4L)

Leilani Farha walking through a neighbourhood in Manila, Philippines in September 2017. Residents are resisting eviction. Photograph courtesy of Veejay Villafranca.

Leilani Farha, Executive Director, Canada Without Poverty, is a leading expert and advocate on economic and social human rights, especially for women. She has a long history promoting the right to adequate housing, equality and non-discrimination in housing in Canada and internationally. Prior to joining Canada Without Poverty, Leilani was the Executive Director of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation for 12 years. She has extensive experience addressing homelessness, poverty and inequality in Canada through advocacy, casework, litigation, research and community based work.  She has been at the forefront of applying international human rights law to anti-poverty issues in Canada, and is known internationally for her work on housing rights and women’s economic and social rights. In 2014, she was appointed  by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the position of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. 

Bio courtesy of Canada Without Poverty.

1. How did your time as an IHRP summer fellow shape your academic and professional interests?  How did your involvement with the IHRP influence your career in law, and now in your policy and advocacy leadership roles?

 It had everything to do with it! I was lucky to create my own fellowship at the Palestine Human Rights Information Centre (PHRIC). That summer was monumental. Yasser Arafat was returning from exile. Palestinian prisoners were being freed. The Oslo Accord was signed. And PHRIC was undertaking the first right to housing campaign in the region and had invited a UN Rapporteur on adequate housing to visit and assess the housing situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories including Gaza.  As the most fluent English speaker in the staff complement, I was appointed to liaise with the UN official and his team and all of the NGOs on the ground. It was life changing. To be honest, I had a really hard time returning from Palestine to complete my law degree. I was so immersed in the culture and politics of the place and in the right to housing as essential to the Palestinian struggle. It was the first time Palestinians had turned to economic and social rights to support their claims – it felt monumental and important. And it was.  And to make life even more complicated, I’d been offered a job there. I really wrestled with whether I could or should return to Toronto to complete my final year, bar ads and articling or whether I should stay. It felt like an abandonment of a peoples to leave. It felt like an abandonment of my intentions to become a qualified lawyer, to learn all that I could about law, if I stayed. 

 I decided to return to Toronto to complete my degrees and get called to the Bar. I wrote my MSW/LLB thesis on the right to housing for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And through this experience, as well as my work placement at the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation I became completely committed to working to advance the right to housing in the domestic context using international human rights law. I really have never worked on anything else since! And of course it was through my IHRP summer fellowship that I was first exposed to international human rights mechanisms like Special Rapporteurs … And now I’m one! 

2. What drove you to your current work and what were your initial steps following law school? What motivated you to become a lifelong advocate for the right to housing, and women’s social and economic rights? 

 I had some amazing people in my life who helped me discover who I am – I mean essentially – what’s at my core. My MSW/LLB supervisor, Prof. Janet Mosher, had this sense that I should be working in the human rights field. She suggested the work placement at the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA). 

 I will never forget walking into CERA to meet the Executive Director, Bruce Porter, to discuss whether they would be willing to take on a student placement. They had never done so before. To be honest, at that time, I didn’t even know that NGOs or human rights organizations existed! I didn’t know some people wore jeans to work everyday, worked in low-rise slightly decrepit buildings, and spent their time working for justice and human rights. All of it was kind of intoxicating to me. It was a good fit. I spent a lot of years working with and for CERA. And though I left that organization for an international one, I have always remained connected to it and the issues the organization was and is concerned with. Bruce Porter and CERA were absolutely integral to my development as a human rights lawyer. I was challenged to think outside the box – always. To be creative with the law. To be a bit bold. And by nature I like doing things that haven’t been done before. I grew up as a bit of an outsider – an Arab Canadian in a pretty anglo, white, and privileged world. So straying from the mainstream is second nature. So I was open to being on the margins of the legal world . 

The women’s economic and social rights work I have done came about simply because of a glaring omission. In the mid-1990s when I got involved in the right to housing work I noticed that women were simply not there. There weren’t many women economic, social and cultural rights rights advocates, and as the dimensions of the right to housing were being explored by UN treaty monitoring bodies and international NGOs, I noticed women’s experiences were absent from those conversations, despite the incredible relevance of home to women. 

 After law school a number of things just fell into place for me. Immediately after I graduated, someone had heard about my interest in women’s right to housing and asked me to write a chapter of a book, which I did. That kind of put me on the human rights map, in a way. Then I managed to arrange to do part of my articles with the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, an international NGO that was based in Geneva. I had met the Executive Director when I was working at CERA – he was an expert in a case the organization was involved in. He eventually offered me a permanent job which I took up after I completed my Articles. And that put me firmly on the right to housing road! 

3. Could you tell us a bit more about your dual role as the executive director of Canada Without Poverty and as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing? 

 Ha! In a word: tiring! I became the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty in September 2012. And then in May 2014 I was appointed UN Special Rapporteur, which is an unremunerated position. CWP decided to continue to support me whilst I am Special Rapporteur on the understanding that I cannot, of course, fulfill all of my Executive Director functions. We have structured the organization so that we now have a Deputy Director who can deal with the activities that I are impossible for me to undertake. And we have a fairly horizontally structured organization, so everyone is used to doing everything. There’s a sense that the SR position is important unto itself, but also important for anti-poverty and right to housing movements in Canada and therefore should be supported. It’s not so common to have Special Rapporteurs that are connected to NGOs – most are academics – and we all agree it’s really important to have different types of Special Rapporteurs.  

It is, of course, daunting to try to perform both roles. I feel so committed to Canada – and I feel the country is at such a precious moment in terms of its potential, especially for the inclusion of economic and social rights in our participatory democracy. I want to be part of that, I want to use my strengths and skills and determination to move that forward! And yet, I feel like I somehow belong to the world or in the world as a place. It’s where I often feel most at home somehow. Not with government representatives sitting in beautiful rooms in “palaces” in Geneva! But as an actor on the global stage. And I feel like I have a global message, that demands a global audience. 

4. What has been some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work? 

Challenges … The travel and being away from my family, the long hours, the feelings of inadequacy (constant!), the feelings of incompetence, the feeling that I cannot possibly help change the world the way I want to – I mean I can’t even develop a decent website for the mandate (and yes, that’s a cry for help to all those techies out there who want to do some pro bono work), and of course, the outrage, and deep sadness I feel about the living conditions that governments have created.  

Rewards …. The people, the people, the people. I meet amazing people, all the time, everywhere I go. Residents who invite me into their homes and articulate the meaning of the right to housing better than anyone else. Advocates around the world who are persistent and clever and stay the course. Academics and students who have volunteered hours and hours of their time to support the work. Other Special Rapporteurs … the list goes on and on.  

Now that I am in my third year, I am starting to see that I am helping to shape conversations, and that’s something. Right to housing advocates were not talking quite so uniformly about the commodification of housing, and now they are. There is more unity around the need and capacity of governments to end homelessness. I think I helped contribute to those conversations. And those are conversations that need to be had. 

5. Do you have any advice for students interested in following a similar path?

Oh, it’s so difficult to give advice – my experiences are so related to the era in which I started out. The mid 1990s was a very different time! And how I ended up here has to do with me having met some incredible people who supported my entry into this work, and then my family background, my racial identity, my subject positioning …  

I suppose I can say this – obviously, everyone is happiest when they pursue work in an area or on an issue they actually care about. The trick is getting paid to do it!  I have always been partial to students who work hard, are curious, are genuinely committed to the issues for the right reasons, and who show up! And show up again and again! I tend to hire those ones – if I can find the money!  

In recognition of the IHRP’s 30th anniversary this year, Rights Review will be profiling notable alumni in each of its issues this year.