Who am I? A reflection on personal leadership development for Humanities 3LM3


At the outset of this course, I had a rudimentary understanding of what leadership is (or can be). I had taken one course which dealt with the subject, taught from a Political Science perspective and focusing on the values of leadership in the Canadian public service. In that course we decided that leadership is not an inherent trait, but something that can be taught, learned, and measured; that leadership can be replicated; and that there are different approaches (Flynn, 2016). Of course, the perspective of the course necessarily focused on leaders in the public service, and was subsequently less reflective and inward-focused as the approach taken by the Humanities.

My personal definition at the start of this course was something like this:

“A leader is someone who motivates others, using a variety of means, to achieve the goals of the collective.”

This isn’t a bad definition. It touches on the aspect of collective goals, as I believe all leadership must. It prioritizes the achievement of goals. It also dictates that the leader must motivate others. It is implied that a leader may use any combination of inspiration, power, or consequences, to achieve the desired ends.

I think this definition misses that leaders are regular people with impressive skills, and that these skills can be learned and taught, and that reflection and constant attention to the process are all important aspects of successful leadership.

In this course, the authors Kouzes and Posner provide us with an alternate definition of leadership. They propose that “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2014, p. 2).

This definition, to me, hints that leadership is an art: something to be honed and practiced, not an inherent trait unique to only certain people. It suggests that leadership is about getting people to want to work for shared goals, not simply getting goals accomplished. Like the first definition, it holds that goals must be collectively held and that it is the work of a leader to ignite others into action. From considering these two definitions, it occurs to me that leadership must be unique to each individual, and that leadership can be so much more than holding a position of authority and using authority to get things done. Leadership should be underscored by passion, excitement, and the expectation of fulfilling results. I hope that is true, because that is a much more compelling pursuit for me to undertake than simply seeking authority.

Because this assignment is designed to consider my own leadership development, I will be responding in subsequent sections to three main questions: Who am I? What have I learned? and Where am I headed? These should provide a comprehensive overview of my own leadership journey, from present to future, with insight into what drives me and fuels me on this journey.



My name is Alison. I am 25 years old, and approaching the end of my undergraduate career. I am studying Social Work and Political Science at McMaster University and am looking forward to graduating in June 2018.

I am passionate about social justice issues. I am particularly invested in the rights of Indigenous peoples of Canada, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racialized minorities in Canada. I am also passionate about my relationships and the wellbeing of those I care about. I derive a lot of value out of learning about social issues, becoming a better person, and spending time with loved ones.

I prefer to spend my time with friends and my pets, outdoors, adventuring, and learning new things. I am particularly interested in personal development goals, such as attempting to live a healthier lifestyle and learning new skills. In reality, I over-indulge in relaxation and only do these things I love when I have a lot of energy. I have identified this area as a primary focus for development, and I am okay with that.

My long-term goals include being financially stable, having a family and strong support network, and working in a field in which I can make meaningful contributions to the lives of others. I hope that I can find that perfect balance between what I care about, what I am good at, what society needs, and what will pay (see image below, courtesy of Kimm Connett, 2015).




One of the ways I practice my values is through my participation in Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA). ESA is a greek letter organization – some would call it a sorority – with an emphasis on the leadership development and empowerment of women. This mandate is enacted through our three pillars: Education, Service, and Association. More specifically, we promote our members’ personal development, service to the community, and the development of strong female relationships. In my two years with ESA I have volunteered over 200+ hours to these ends and been fortunate enough to hold leadership positions ranging from the education of new members, to chapter President. This has had a profound impact on my own development and has exponentially increased my ability to foster relationships and make a difference in my community. ESA is an exemplary model of my values and interests in action, and I will continue to live my life in accordance with this model long after I have left its ranks.



ESA sisters on Day of the Girl, when we raise awareness and funds for the protection and benefit of girl children in developing countries.



This has been a year of learning for me, so allow me to break this subject down into headings, so that I may be more clear.


What have I learned about leadership?

This year I was fortunate to read The Student Leadership Challenge, a book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2014). The book breaks down leadership into five core functions: modelling the way for others; inspiring a shared vision; challenging obstacles and defunct processes; enabling others to act; and encouraging others’ contributions and spirits. The book contends that no leader can flourish without bringing people together, encouraging and including them, and innovating to identify and solve problems with creativity and collaboration. The authors detail what each of these functions entail, and give the reader opportunities to consider their own abilities in relation to this leadership model.

This helped me to conceptualize leadership as something that can be learned. It especially helped me to believe that leadership is something I might be capable of; and it gave me a way to analyze my own behaviours in light of how they might impact my leadership abilities. Indeed, the authors grant readers access to an online tool called the Leadership Practices Inventory, where learners can assess their abilities based on the frequency with which they demonstrate each behaviour. This is consistent with my belief that it is our behaviours, more than our words or even our intentions, which ultimately decide how effective a person can be. Fortunately, the inclusion of specific guidelines which detail how to model desired behaviours made it much easier for me to practice those skills with which I struggle. It was a tremendous learning tool.

Throughout this course, I also began to construct my own notion of leadership that is inclusive of many ways to be a leader. My image of the ‘Stereotypical Leader’ is no longer a stubborn CEO, but instead, I believe there is no such thing as a stereotypical leader. I believe activists, teachers, volunteers, parents, and even friends are examples of leaders in our everyday lives. I can be a leader, and I didn’t have to assume the role of President of my sorority to do so, although it provided unmatched opportunities to practice the skills I am learning.

This year, I also read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and begun to incorporate ideas about leadership and feminism into one idea, as I had never done before. For one assignment, I argued that leadership needs feminism: to shatter that aforementioned Stereotypical Leader trope; to change our idea of leadership from one of economic importance to one of whatever a person wishes to lead. And I argued that feminism needs leadership: it needs stewards and pioneers to continually be bringing and developing feminism in our society’s collective mind, and embedding our collective knowledge with the belief that women are as valuable as men. That in fact, no person is less valuable or worthy of respect than the next.

These are ideas about which I am passionate, and the idea of leadership takes on a new appeal when it is applied to my passions. This, of course, was already argued by Kouzes and Posner when they describe people’s “personal best” leadership experiences. These stories all centre on people who see a problem in the world, and care enough about it to decide they will be the one to do something about it.


What have I learned about myself, in relation to leadership?

As mentioned above, the Student Leadership Challenge (SLC) came with a tool called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI): an online self-assessment for readers of the SLC to compare their own behaviours to those suggested in the five core functions of leadership identified in the SLC. I used this tool only twice throughout the year, and will continue to use the tool when I have more opportunities to practice leadership. Two trends emerged across my self-assessments: the first is that, of the five leadership practices, there is proof that I struggle with certain competencies more than others; and the second is that some of my leadership abilities have improved.


September 2016 January 2017
Model the Way 16 18
Inspire a Shared Vision 17 15
Challenge the Process 21 19
Enable Others to Act 20 22
Encourage the Heart 22 24

I confidently attribute the increased score for the “Model the Way” competency to my heightened awareness of this as an area for improvement. I knew before even taking the LPI that this is where I am weak as a leader. I now think that thinking about leadership holistically – that is, not seeking to excel in one competency at the risk of forgetting others – would be a better approach, so that I do not become so focused on one skill that I forget the others.

This side-by-side comparison of my leadership abilities shows an overall pattern of growth. I believe I have developed marginally in modelling the behaviours I wish to see in others, in allowing others more freedom in the pursuit of shared goals, and that I have further developed my highest ability: encouraging others. It is interesting that my top three competencies have not changed. Yet, the extra attention to “Modelling the Way” has boosted this competency several points ahead of what is now my weakest skill, “Inspiring a Shared Vision.”

I think it is natural that my strongest abilities should have become even stronger. Their originally high scores suggest to me that they are natural skills for me (indeed, my love of people makes this a logical conclusion). Paying just the slightest bit more attention to the need to encourage and liberate others naturally increased my willingness to do it. Further, having ways to do so highlighted by Kouzes and Posner in the SLC illuminated more opportunities for me to do so, in ways I hadn’t seen before.

I believe these assessments are mostly accurate reflections of my abilities. One potential factor which may otherwise impact my leadership abilities (or my perception of them) is the type of leadership activities I am participating in. Mentorship, for example, was a unique experience for me, and I found I was weaker at inspiring my mentees than I might be in other relationships. This was probably because I did not know my mentees well, outside of their academic pursuits, and it was difficult to give effective inspiration or encouragement for this reason. This has taught me that connecting with people and attempting to understand what motivates them are invaluable skills in leadership; I believe these would have helped my mentoring strategy significantly.

*    *    *    *    *

More than all that, I have learned that leadership is something I shouldn’t shy away from. At one time, not long ago, I considered myself a born follower (and I’ll come back to that). I assumed leadership was a trait possessed by a chosen few, and even if it could be learned and emulated, it couldn’t be by me. I thought I didn’t have the passion, or courage, or opportunity network required to lead. I now believe  a person can lead in any circumstance; that leadership doesn’t require formalities and power and official positions, but passion and need.

I described above that I am passionate about helping others. This means that I often recognize others’ hesitance to lead, and my drive has propelled me to lead when the circumstances require it. This has built my confidence in the last year in particular, and I am proud of what I have accomplished, and proud to have done it in service of others (such as mentoring, being an Ally with Student Accessibility Services, and taking on responsibilities within Epsilon Sigma Alpha).

That said, I also view being an effective follower as an act of leadership. Kouzes and Posner (2014) recognize this as part of “Enabling Others to Act,” one of their core values. I am also thinking of Derek Sivers (2010), who describes the importance of the “first follower” in establishing movements by leading others to support the ‘leader.’ See the video here.

Sivers says, “Being the first follower is an underappreciated form of leadership” [0:42-0:46]. I believe supporting others is a very realistic way that every single person can practice their leadership skills. Sivers acknowledges that not everybody can be the leader of something; that is neither practical nor realistic. Instead, he posits that being a follower – particularly the first, or among the first – is an act of courage which equals that of the leader themselves. In fact, he argues that the leader must embrace the first followers as equals, if a movement is to be made. Sivers acknowledges that many people will ridicule a person acting alone, and it takes courage to be the first person to follow another; but it is in fact within the power of that first follower to transform a “lone nut” (Sivers’ words) into a leader.


What have I learned from being a student mentor?

From September until December, I had the opportunity to mentor two students in McMaster’s English Language Development (MELD) program. It was the intent of the program to match an upper-year student with MELD students, to equip them with the knowledge and skills to safeguard their transition into university life.

My first lesson as a mentor was that, if you are going to adopt the role of ‘mentor’ in any professional capacity, you cannot ‘wing it.’ This was my approach – as it is in most things – and in my very first course reflection I remarked, “In full disclosure, I did not prepare at all for my first mentorship meeting … This showed through pretty quickly after meeting them, when I realized I knew nothing.” If I could redo the entire experience, I would have prepared for each meeting. And I would have made a greater effort to get to know my student mentees as people, not only as students, so that I might find better ways to inspire and excite them about the prospect of their education. Other than preparation, I felt this was my weakest attribute as a mentor.

Kouzes and Posner would say that I failed to model the way – indeed, how can I teach academic skills without doing my homework? – and failed to align our values and vision. Or more likely, they would identify these as new personal obstacles to overcome on the leadership journey.

And I carry some guilt for my lack of preparation. This is good, because guilt is a powerful motivator for me. In hindsight, I feel that I wasted my time and theirs, to be unprepared for our meetings and without a plan. In truth, I think this failure to prepare made me a poor mentor, because my usual laissez-faire attitude is a poor match for this type of work. I owe responsibility to my mentees, and I hope to remember this  if I am ever in such a role again. As I said, this is a prime example of my struggle to “Model the Way:” it was challenging for me to inspire my mentees, and lead them on the road to academic success, when I myself was not doing due diligence with regards to their development.

That said, it was not a total disaster. The most successful mentorship meetings were those in which I asked my two students what their personal goals were. One of them wanted to attend upper-level lectures to assess whether he could handle the English language requirements of a second- or third-year course. The other wanted to switch programs from Economics to Math, and needed to figure out how that was done. By mid-way through the term, these tasks were accomplished after we partialized the problem. What I mean is, I assigned the first student the job of selecting a window of time in which he could sit in on a class; after that, he was to identify a class of interest; and then, finally, to attend. He proceeded to attend many upper-year courses and eventually felt more confident that he would be able to handle them. The second student was asked first to find out who in the Math department he could speak with about the requirements of the program; he was then to identify the person in the MELD program who could help him switch, and then to instigate that. Both of my mentees went above and beyond these goals, and I hope they are as proud of their efforts as I am proud of them.

I learned from this experience that these students were their own leaders, and I an accessory to their success. Their goals were successful when they were set by themselves, not set by me. And since their success was my only goal, we worked together to mutual ends.


What have I learned from the process of regular reflection?

In response to the requirements of the leadership course I was taking, I made regular reflections on my leadership practice, on what I was learning via the course content, and on my successes and failures as a mentor. Regular reflection provided me with insight into my own processes, such as how my thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions aligned (or otherwise), and how I might handle situations differently with new insight.

One situation which stuck with me was not my own, but that of a guest lecturer, Juanita. She had worked in the field of human services, as I hope to, which is perhaps why her story resonated. She described being put in a situation to choose between using her clients for a funder’s motive, or else losing their services altogether. She described struggling with the dilemma, and of course there was no ‘good’ option. In the end, she decided not to use her clients because she could not live with that as a consequence of her decision. I remarked in my reflection that “I think values are a thing that is easy to discuss and very challenging to live… I think values provide some guidance through uncertainty, and it is probably easier to live with challenging decisions that are compatible with your values than those that are not.” This, from the entire course, was the message which resonated the most with me and will likely have the biggest impact on my decision-making in future.

In fact, it already has. I was recently put in a position to choose between two jobs: one offer was on the table, but I valued the work less; the other was not guaranteed, but expected, and I valued the work greatly. I weighed my options for a long time and eventually decided first that I must give my negative response to the offer on the table immediately, so that they would not be waiting on me; and so I decided that I would wait, because I valued the other position enough that it was worth taking this chance for. I considered how I would feel in the event that I lost both offers in this gamble, and I knew that I would rather have lost a priceless opportunity than settle for less without trying. I knew that, whatever the outcome, I was proud of myself for doing right by the agency I let go, and equally proud of myself for taking a chance on something I cared so much about. It was this thinking – that it would be easier to live with the negative outcome of a decision aligned with my values, than the outcome of that which is not – which guided my decision-making. And as a happy aside, it worked in my favour. So I am thrilled to be in a field in which I am reaching my fullest potential to serve others; and I am equally thrilled with how I handled myself in a tough situation.



To succinctly summarize my above learning, I know these three things:

  1. Life is full of difficult challenges, and I will be put in the position of having to make difficult decisions. But I know what I am passionate about, and what I am capable of, and what my values are. And it is easier to live with hardships, when they are the inevitable consequences of living aligned with your values.
  2. I have weaknesses. For various reasons, I may struggle to exercise leadership skills. But leadership is a practice, and I am capable, and actions matter. So I must continue to struggle to align my values with my actions, which remains my weakest leadership skill.
  3. I must think about leadership holistically: seeking connection with others, prioritizing my values, and not getting hung-up on the details.

As I described at the outset, I am passionate about certain social justice issues. I know that Kouzes and Posner would suggest that my interest in these areas will eventually expose a need which must be filled, and I will need to be brave enough to say, I will fill it. When that time comes, I hope I will make good decisions, align my actions with what I care about, and think about the aspects of leadership laid out above.

*    *    *    *    *

To this end, I will continue to work on honing my leadership skills. “Walking the walk” or “modelling the way” has always been my struggle, and I will continue to think about it. However, I will not focus so exclusively on this one thing that I minimise the importance of others. I realize that leadership is a collaborative process – indeed, there can be no leader without those to lead – and I will continue to reflect on how I can be more inspiring and inclusive of others, in the pursuit of my passions.

To do this, I will try to seek out more opportunities for leadership. Volunteerism is an excellent medium for this, given that it is an excellent leadership tool and is aligned with my values of service to others. My service to Epsilon Sigma Alpha will also help me in the short-term, as I will assume a smaller role but endeavour to support my sisters who are stepping upward. ESA remains a truly exceptional avenue to hone each of the practices laid out in the Student Leadership Challenge.

As I begin to move past my university years – and it’s only a matter of months now – I know that I will crave relationships, financial stability, and fulfillment in my professional life, because these are my core values. Again I think of that sweet spot where my passion, skills, economic security, and society’s needs meet. I imagine this will require I collaborate with others a great deal, and will involve many leadership experiences, especially if I want to create large-scale change (which I do). I believe I have more knowledge and tools at my disposal for this path, having taken this course. I hope that the habit of reflection – which I fully intend to keep up – keeps me mindful of what I have learned.





Connett, K. (2015, July 13). Inspiring a generation, 2015. The Passion Project. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/KimmConnett1/inspiring-a-generation-2015-50460321

Flynn, G. (2016, January 14). Leaders and followers. From POLITICAL SCIENCE 3FG3, Public Service Leadership. Lecture conducted at McMaster University, Hamilton: ON.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2014). The student leadership challenge: Five practices for becoming an exemplary leader. The Leadership Challenge/Wiley: San Francisco, CA.

Sivers, D. (2010, February 11). First follower: Leadership lessons from Dancing Guy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ



From “Evidence-based practice: A critical reflection”


“This assumption (that best practices are those which are supported by empirical research) perpetuates the privilege of scientific knowledge over other forms of knowledge, and promotes the authority of the scientific community (Powell 2005), while it also dovetails neatly with the agendas of powerful forces in the health care industry. It is not coincidental that EBP [evidence-based practice] has gained prominence at the same time as managed care (Boler and Hall 2007, Otto and Ziegler 2008). Managerial interests stressing accountability and cost effectiveness have fuelled the validation of EBPs, even as they focus, sometimes inappropriately, on brief, short term interventions and the oversimplification of complex problems whose roots lie in the social system.

In the wake of the EBP juggernaut, consumers, service providers and qualitative researchers are among the marginalized groups. Some qualitative researchers have asserted that EBP’s narrow view of science and evidence supports a conservative world view (Lincoln 2005). When clients are seen as the problem, there is little need to question the social structures and economic inequalities that exacerbate, and sometimes cause, personal struggles. In EBP, social interventions that target the victim are pursued while social and economic structures are protected. Essentially, EBP reflects the interests of quantitative researchers and the status quo, and not necessarily the interests of consumers, service providers or qualitative researchers, whose voices are suppressed.”

Petr, C. G. & Walter, U.M. (2009). Evidence-based practice: A critical reflection. European Journal of Social Work, 12(2), 221-232.

The Canadian Address to Housing and Homelessness: What are we doing and what more can be done?


The following is an essay I wrote in March 2013 on homelessness and housing policy in Canada. This is how I cemented my interest (and desire to work) in housing policy, and though it is just a research paper, it is the proudest I have ever been of any accomplishment in my life, at that point or since. I hope it disheartens and inspires you, too.


It is no great secret that today’s economic climate is characterized by great wealth in some areas of the world and acute poverty in others. What is more surprising is the disparity that exists between the wealthy and impoverished peoples of developed nations, and the high cost burden of supporting the system which is placed heavily on the backs of the working class. In Canada, this struggle is exemplified on two fronts: by the massive but poorly documented numbers of Canadians living without permanent residence in many metropolitan areas, and by the larger number of Canadians struggling to afford the roof above their heads with the high cost of housing and disproportionately low incomes. It is the intent of this essay to prove that Canada’s current address to both homelessness and to those living at risk is an inadequate approach, given the current low prioritization of social and supportive housing, and the ignorance of this in public policy directed toward improving the nation’s future. To this end, Canada’s current address to homelessness and housing will be detailed, followed by some proposed improvement strategies made by activist organizations advocating for the needs of the struggling Canadian population. This will include a comparison to some of the policies of other nations in addressing these issues within their own borders, highlighting some more progressive options than Canada’s current system and proving them to be both adequate and equitable. As will be evident due to both the shortcomings of the current system and the benefits of several alternatives, Canadian policy is not addressing the housing crisis of growing concern in Canada, and in effect ignores the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

When analyzing the effectiveness of a social program, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the current system against those of alternative measures is the most effective way to determine the best of all available options. As it currently stands, the Canadian address to both homelessness and the housing crisis of at-risk households is often criticized as lacking efficiency and sustainability, greatly due to a lack of involvement from some necessary parts of government. To best understand the significance of the issue, this essay will begin with a brief explanation of some current statistics regarding Canada’s negligence of the homeless and at risk populations. These are interlinking issues, and so they will be examined simultaneously in the coming arguments: but to avoid confusion, each shall always begin with those living in absolute homelessness. This is a term succinctly defined by Steve Pomeroy (2001, p. 3) as “living without four walls and a roof,” and these individuals most poignantly exemplify the suffering which results from Canada’s lack of strategy. But what must not be ignored is the less visible but still significant burden of the situation, which is also felt by individuals and families living at risk.

In 2005, Canada’s population totaled approximately 32,299,500 citizens (Statistics Canada, 2007). Of these, an estimation of Canada’s homeless population suggested there were approximately 150,000 Canadians living in absolute homelessness based on street and shelter counts (Laird, 2007). This 150,000 people is often cited as a low count, excluding from the survey those individuals who are in and out of homelessness, or who avoid the regions in which the survey took place. So though there are no official numbers to support this, many non-governmental estimates indicate that this number is much higher, instead ranging somewhere between 200,000-300,000 individuals (Laird, 2007). The first indication that Canada is guilty of neglecting its most marginalized population lies in the fact that there is no official or remotely annual count of the numbers of homeless Canadians. As Canadian citizens, it is the duty of the government to protect these citizens: yet these rights cannot be protected when the individuals remain excluded from official counts of the nation’s population. This process is complicated because of the ambiguity of the term “homelessness,” which may be broken down into primary, secondary, and tertiary degrees: in short, these terms distinguish between individuals who lack any form of shelter, those in short-term care (such as shelters or staying with friends and family), and individuals with severely precarious living situations (Collins 2010, 935). Yet counting and classification of these groups, so often ignored, is a vital part of the solution: says Collins, “The ability to provide comprehensive, quantitative answers to questions concerning the size and characteristics of the homeless population (however defined) is critical to keeping homelessness on the political agenda, and to informing policy” (Collins 2010, 935). Thus if the solution to the problem begins with policy, it must be a quantitative discussion. The significance of the attention paid to this crisis will be further examined under the umbrella of agenda-setting theory later on.

With nowhere to turn, many homeless persons seeking safety through the night look to emergency shelters; in worse cases, many of these individuals end up spending the night in jail or in hospital (Eberle et al., 2001). Those who cannot or will not partake in the system of emergency care are forced to find shelter out of doors, although this does not guarantee freedom from admittance to hospital or jail. In 2001, Eberle et al. conducted a study in British Columbia chronicling the social service usage of a number of homeless individuals in the province, including not only the standard services associated with homelessness – namely shelters and food banks – but also that of health care, the criminal justice system, and incarceration. Each of these services see disproportionately high usage from homeless Canadians, so their cost and frequency of use are decisive factors in determining the significance of the cost of homelessness to Canada’s social spending. In this study, the average cost per day of staying in hospital was approximately $512 when averaged among all those surveyed, and staying in provincial correctional institutions varied from $155-$250 per day (Eberle et al., 2001). Given the high usage of these and related social services as necessitated by the harsh circumstances of absolute homelessness, these costs are significant when tabulated. Using these and related costs, and averaging the frequency of their use by the homeless persons involved in the survey, the study approximated that a single homeless individual costs Canada somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 annually (Eberle et al., 2001).

In contrast, the same report estimates the cost of providing housing and supportive services to formerly homeless individuals to be significantly less, costing somewhere between $22,000 to $28,000 per year depending on the level of care required (Eberle et al., 2001). To calculate the annual cost of homelessness in Canada based on the low estimate of 150,000 individuals, approximately 4.5 to 6 billion dollars are spent annually on temporary emergency service use by individuals living in absolute homelessness (Laird, 2007; Gaetz, 2010 & 2012). Using the higher estimates of the Canadian homeless population, this cost could be anywhere between 6 to 12 billion dollars annually. The significance of this spending is best understood when also considering the context: that this money is spent on temporary and emergency response services, and necessitates that it is spent repeatedly on an annual basis because it does nothing toward creating long-term solutions to the problems faced by homeless individuals.

Returning to the annual cost of $22,000-$28,000 on supportive housing and social structures, this translates to an annual spending of $3.3 to $8.4 billion annually.[1] The economic advantage of this is significant, not only with regards to the costs outlined above, but also the tremendous savings associated with removing individuals from the street – for example, housing homeless individuals reduces their likelihood of incarceration and involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as increases their safety and subsequently decreases their likelihood of requiring costly hospital stays. On another note, spending more money than must be required on a less socially desirable outcome than is possible is neither equitable nor sustainable for the Canadian social system. To illustrate this point, an estimate of the waste created during the decade following Canada’s social service budget cuts of 1994 saw Canada spend approximately $49.5 billion to essentially maintain the status quo, by providing the most minimal necessities to Canada’s homeless population with no movement toward long-term care (Laird, 2007).

The above statistics make a strong case against the needless expenditures of the current emergency response approach taken by the government in addressing homelessness in Canada. On a related note, adequate housing supply for those fortunate enough to have a permanent place of residence to call home is becoming an increasing concern. In 2004, 1.7 million Canadian households (roughly one in seven homes) were living at risk, paying upwards of 30 percent of their total income on housing; more than two thirds of this population are renters (Laird, 2007). By definition, a reasonable home is expected to provide adequate space for all members of the household, as well as provide safe plumbing and electricity. Ideally, these qualities should be attainable within one’s community and cost less than 30 percent of household income to attain. A home is referred to as being in core housing need when these standards are not met (Pomeroy, 2001). Worse still, in 1996 approximately 830,000 Canadian renters were living in the category of worse case need, characterized by the home paying more than 50 percent of household income on housing (Pomeroy, 2001).

The dwindling availability of suitable but affordable housing in Canada is very much a political issue, though it is rarely treated as such. Through 1993 and 1994, the Canadian government made a series of budget cuts to social assistance programs, and the Canadian system has suffered for it. One of the most devastating of these is the lack of social housing. 1993 marked the end of federal funding to the provinces for non-profit housing projects, massively decreasing available housing units for Canadians. To illustrate the significance of this, consider the 1980’s, in which approximately 20,000 social housing units were being built per year; compare this to the post-budget cut social housing completions, which saw only 4,450 units created between the years 1994-1998 (Pomeroy, 2001; Laird, 2007). Closely related to these cost-saving measures were reductions in the federal transfers to the provinces for social security, and an increase in the restrictions placed upon accessing Unemployment Insurance in 1994 (Martin, 1994). Perhaps not surprisingly, more than half of today’s core need households receive social assistance, and 95 percent of all renters reported affordability as their main barrier to suitable housing (Pomeroy, 2001). This is summarized beautifully by Damian Collins, saying:

“This withdrawal of the state meant the supply of affordable housing remained static, while private market rental accommodation became increasingly unaffordable for many low-income individuals and families. This was due to rapid increases in average rents, low vacancy rates in many cities, and a private sector focus on the provision of owner-occupied accommodation – all processes associated with increasing prosperity and economic growth” (Collins 2010, 939).

The trickle-down flow of power which characterizes the Canadian political system is one aspect of Canadian government which requires clarification when addressing homelessness, given the ambiguity of the responsibilities of each layer of government. Christopher Leo (2006) speaks to the complications that arise from the inter-related nature of municipal, regional and federal governments when making policy decisions, given that each level of government has its own needs and agenda. Leo states three ‘hard realities’ of Federalism in the modern century: first, being constrained by many pressures at once, the federal government is limited in its ability to protect citizens from an increasingly harsh economic climate; second, communities within the nation find themselves at competition against one another given the limited nature of resources, and also at odds with international competition; and third, this leaves municipal and provincial governments increasingly dependent upon their own resources, rather than being able to depend upon the federal government for support (Leo, 2006). This argument is central to the national concerns of both housing and homelessness, as these are local issues which cause strains primarily on regional and municipal governments. Yet this is directly at odds with the Canadian tax system, in which the federal government accrues the most wealth from taxation, followed by that of the provinces (Alway, 2013). Revenue generated at the municipal level is markedly insufficient to provide measures to defend against either housing or homelessness crises, yet the acute burden of these issues falls almost entirely at the local level. This issue is one which requires discussion amongst members of all levels of government in order to formulate a national strategy to alleviate the burden on Canada’s most marginalized groups, as will be further discussed when examining several proposed solutions to the crisis at hand.

Though the current state of disrepair evidenced by the present Canadian address to housing and homelessness certainly looks bleak, evidence does not suggest that there is no way to improve the situation. In fact, much of the literature criticizing the current system does so only for the sake of highlighting the more efficient and equitable ways the system may be approached. Given the current prioritization of Canadian politics, however, the current state of affairs suggests a very laissez-faire  approach to tackling Canada’s housing crisis, and this non-interventionism on behalf of the government is the first thing which must be changed. Thus the second argument of this essay – based on targeting proposed solutions to the current crisis, and why these are not yet being implemented – will begin by examining the agenda-setting priorities of government, followed by strategic suggestions from some Canadian homelessness policy activists.

In deciding how best to make housing in Canada a national priority, the obvious choice as suggested by proponents of Agenda-Setting Theory is to make homelessness a more publicized issue to the Canadian population. In their influential writing on the matter of agenda-setting theory, McCombs and Shaw (1972) demonstrate the relationship between political issues which are highly discussed in the media and the importance of those issues as regarded by the general public. As voters, matters of public significance have a direct impact on the matters discussed in government, most notably in the running platforms of hopeful electoral candidates. Indeed, their findings state “While the mass media may have little influence on the direction or intensity of attitudes, it is hypothesized that the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues” (McCombs and Shaw, 1972, 177).

While the above findings of agenda-setting theory clearly define the impact of mass media on public opinion, it arguably does not capture the entire circular flow of reality: it is easily argued that more often than not, at the same time mass media is influencing the direction of public discourse, public interest in issues also influences those topics most covered by the media. Assuming this to be true, it would be beneficial to have more Canadians take note of the homeless crisis evident in nearly every metropolitan area nationwide, thus making homelessness a platform of importance to the governments of the day. Though it is not fully conclusive evidence, there is some argument to be made that the Canadian identity is becoming more closely aligned with these objectives, given the success of the New Democratic Party in the last federal election. The NDP is openly supportive of increasing social welfare programs, and in fact recently attempted to pass a bill intent upon initiating talks of a national housing strategy for Canada (Parliament of Canada, 2013). Unfortunately the bill was both underpublicized and unsuccessful, yet agenda-setting theory dictates that if homelessness were more heavily publicized, its popularity in public opinion would increase and politicians would be likely to reflect this discussion in their issues of significance. However, the unfortunate shortcoming of this idea lies in the fact that homelessness is an issue which goes widely ignored by the general population.

One possible explanation for this, courtesy of Ross Gordon (2012), suggests that a region’s sense of community drives commitment to particular social issues. Needless to say, this general approach to certain issues is of significance to the local politics of the community. At the same time, this communal atmosphere is at odds with individuals who differ from the collectively desired criteria, who are effectively excluded from the community’s social sphere because they are not aligned with certain standards, despite living in the region (Gordon, 2012). Given the significance of homelessness falling primarily in the realm of municipal jurisdiction, the importance of recognizing a city’s homeless population as a part of the community is tremendous. Arguably, failing to do so results in the system we currently have, in which homeless individuals are cared for only insofar as to provide basic necessities of life involving minimal long-term commitments on part of the Canadian government. To address homelessness, community outreach programs should be used to bring homelessness to the forefront of discussion in local politics. To do this, recall Leo’s (2006) reflections on the struggles of the governmental hierarchy, showing that municipal governments clearly require more resources – such as power and funding – to improve the quality of life of the citizens within their region. Thus, a seemingly local issue must become a national discussion involving support and strategizing on behalf of all levels of government.

It is important to note that the significance of this issue lies not only in the idyllic hope for a more egalitarian future, but also to protect the rights associated with Canadian citizenship. If Canada allows the rights of some citizens to be trespassed upon, then the rights of all are arguably more open to compromise. Homelessness is a vulnerability which marginalizes Canadian citizens by excluding them from the public sphere, effectively eliminating their say in the creation of policies which often most affect them. So when this ignorance of the acute needs of a city’s homeless population takes place in policy creation, its effects transcend interpersonal neglect: instead, ignorant policies have occasionally been found in direct conflict with the rights assigned to all Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a highly publicized court case in British Columbia, Victoria (city) v. Adams, certain municipal bylaws were found to be guilty of infringing upon the rights of the city’s homeless population as those stated in the Charter’s section 7 (Young, 2009/2010). In direct relation to this case, Young distinguishes between positive and negative rights, clarifying their impact on society: negative rights are those which require the government’s non-interference in matters, such as freedom of speech, religion and association; on the other hand, positive rights are those which require government intervention to ensure, such as equality of opportunity and some social and economic rights (Young, 2009/2010). It goes without saying that many social and economic rights come easier to some than to others, and many individuals living at risk or in absolute homelessness require government assistance to achieve equality of opportunity. In BC, two Victoria bylaws attempted to beautify the city by prohibiting the formation of temporary shelter in public spaces: this made it impossible for homeless individuals to protect themselves against the elements while sleeping out of doors. The Supreme Court found this to be in violation of the Charter by obstructing the attempts of the city’s homeless population to meet their needs for life, liberty and security.

The importance of the rights associated with Canadian citizenship as entrenched in the Charter cannot be understated. Not only is it a statement of all those things one can and cannot do as a citizen of Canada, but it is also a reflection of Canadian values, hugely significant to our cultural identity. As stated by Martha Jackman in reflecting upon the importance of those rights within the Charter,

“Were one to ask individual Canadians themselves what they consider to be ‘the values most fundamental to the Canadian way of life,’ and by definition, those which they would expect to find expressed in our constitutional Charter, one of the first responses would surely be the near-universal concern for individual social and economic security. … These deeply held values cannot be ignored in the general search for meaning in the Charter. However they have particular relevance for the interpretation of section 7. This can best be understood by looking to dominant Canadian perceptions of the relationship between the community, the individual and the state” (Jackman, 1988, 260-261).

Jackman identifies the Charter as characteristic of the Canadian identity and as something which must reflect the nation’s values and priorities. To disregard the rights invested in the Charter to any Canadian citizen – especially those most vulnerable – does more than violate the rights of the individual: this act violates the values associated with the Charter, invalidating the significance of the equal protections laid out in its depths and the morals from which they are derived. The case of Victoria v. Adams is significant in the battle against homelessness because it demonstrates the sometimes conflicting interests of national and regional governments, and illustrates the ways in which these crossing lines of authority can trespass upon the rights of Canadian citizens. This is one of many reasons for which there must be more open communication between local and national policies. It must also be noted that given the antagonistic nature of Victoria’s dually conflicting needs – those of caring for the homeless population while maintaining liveability and aesthetic appeal – financial assistance from the government is required to help initiate and support improved social programs, aiding the city’s homeless population by providing them with a home off of the streets, and not with punitive public policies. Stricter regulations of bylaws, so as to ensure they do not infringe upon the rights of vulnerable citizens, must be monitored: this must be paired with assistance and communication from all levels of government, so as to equitably aid all Canadians in need.

In understanding the significance of government assistance in creating equitable and egalitarian social policies, a closer examination of some suggested alterations to the system of housing in Canada requires attention. Steve Pomeroy (2001), a Toronto-based policy activist and researcher aimed primarily at national housing issues, identifies several ways in which Canada’s approach to the provision of housing could be altered to be more effective for all. He identifies both supply- and demand-side measures, the first being those solutions which boost new unit production and the latter being financial assistance to households in need. While demand-focused support certainly has its merits – particularly its relatively low cost to government expenditures – it does nothing to address the rising need for new production resulting of Canada’s growing population. Thus, though demand-centred approaches may contribute to the system and have some relevance, the predominant approach to housing must address the need for increased supply.

Pomeroy (2001) provides an array of solutions for targeting supply issues in Canada’s housing crisis, and these pair well with a comparison to some various strategies seen worldwide. To address homelessness as a crucial example of the need for a national housing strategy, Damian Collins (2010) makes an excellent case of the differences in policy between Canada and New Zealand with regards to social housing, and the impact it has upon homelessness. He does this by comparing the prevalence of housing need and homelessness in two Canadian cities, Vancouver and Edmonton, to New Zealand’s Auckland City. When looking at each city’s local policies directed at targeting homelessness, he emphasizes vast disparities between them, noting “Auckland City has recently developed a Homeless Action Plan that, while generally supportive in tone, is modest in its goals and extremely brief. Homelessness policy in Edmonton and (more particularly) Greater Vancouver entails complex layers of plans and proposals, and articulates a key role for local authorities in increasing housing supply” (Collins 2010, 949). Yet the pervasiveness of homelessness in Auckland is significantly less than those of Canada: in a single night’s survey of Auckland (population 1.4 million, and the nation’s city with the greatest homeless problem), there were 134 individuals found to be living in absolute homelessness. In a similar study in Vancouver, a single day’s survey of the city found 2,174 homeless individuals in a population of 2.2 million (Collins 2010, 940-941). It must also be assumed that both of these are undercounts, given that “only a proportion of all those without shelter are visible at any one time” (Collins 2010, 942).

Though the city plans of Vancouver and Edmonton are greatly more detailed than those of Auckland, New Zealand’s success in minimizing its homeless population has been undeniable. This is likely because of the emphasis the New Zealand government places on creating long-term housing solutions within their national housing strategy, which starkly compares to the withdrawal of the Canadian federal government from the issue of housing production within Canada in 1993 (Collins 2010, 949). New Zealand’s housing strategy is two-fold: as introduced by Pomeroy, it includes both supply- and demand-centred approaches. Collins (2010) introduces New Zealand’s strategy to the comparison to Canada, noting that its aims are first to create State Housing, and also to provide Accommodation Supplements to households in financial need. As of 2010, there were 64,000 units of state housing available to low-income households with rent charged on a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) basis: this necessitates that no household within the program pays more than 25% of its total income on rent (Collins, 2010). Collins further elaborates that his may work in tandem with or separately from the state’s accommodation supplement, which provides financial assistance to low- and middle-income households for payments on home loans or rent.

This is a startling comparison to Canada, in which there exists no national housing strategy, and in which the burdens of struggling homeowners and homeless persons alike fall predominantly on the resources of local governments. Where in New Zealand it is a national objective is to provide affordable housing for all New Zealanders in need, the burden of homelessness does not fall heavily upon the cities. Collins (2010) goes on to point out that when homeless individuals do require assistance, the city is more able to treat each case on an ad hoc basis, efficiently aiding the individual and avoiding the social crisis as seen in Canada. By contrast, Canada’s focus on emergency response measures places an unbearable burden on metropolitan areas with limited funds, and the effects of this are evidenced by many statistics as stated. As a result of these factors, the burden of homelessness is visibly significantly less in New Zealand than in Canada, as a direct result of the proactive policies of New Zealand and the highly desensitized Canadian agenda.

In Toward a Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy for Canada, Steve Pomeroy (2001) puts forward an array of options available to the Canadian government for meeting both supply- and demand-based measures of housing provision. He lists supply measures as the greater need of the two, given the more quickly rising Canadian population rate as compared with the slow rate of completion for new housing projects. He lists several supply options such as: aiding public and non-profit developments with subsidies or loans to reduce the cost of development and keep rents low; providing incentives for private companies to produce rental units; providing tax benefits to small-scale landlords; encouraging single-person occupancy development projects; and, shifting patterns of ownership of existing stock from private to not-for-profit organizations (Pomeroy, 2001, 9-18). Promoting the production of new housing stock is constantly disregarded by Canadian policy because it is the most expensive of the available measures. This is because of the incentives required per unit to encourage production by various organizations, as well as the sheer volume of units required. Though it is a costly project to undertake, the benefits of this are seen in the New Zealand system having used this strategy for decades, and it is arguably less expensive in the long run given the saved costs in emergency funds.

An effective social strategy which is gaining momentum around the world is the conception of “Housing First,” which is the controversial implementation of the premise that homelessness is best defeated by first providing adequate housing. This may then be followed up with in-depth social service provisions which are tailored to the needs of the newly-housed individuals (Laird, 2007). This concept is at odds with the popular opinion that homeless individuals are somehow at fault for their unfortunate circumstances, and so housing first is widely contested: yet, given it has already been proven that the removal of homeless individuals from the streets is both a moral and financial asset to a city’s wellbeing, fighting this very simple idea seems irrational. Providing housing to all members of a nation must carry an uplifting effect in national identity, as well as captures a progressive move in Canada toward planning for the needs of future growth in the nation. Though costs up front prove expensive, many nations have adopted a national housing strategy and Canada is in the minority of developed nations left without one. While the Canadian interests of remaining internationally competitive have led to a series of cuts to social welfare, meeting a certain standard to determine the nation’s quality of life can do us no harm in trade, liveability and reputation. The positive ideological effects of this would be a national point of pride, and the savings incurred from relieving the strains on emergency care responses would be felt by Municipal, Provincial and Federal governments alike.

As this essay set out to prove, there are obvious limitations to the approach currently taken by the Canadian government in addressing the nation’s rising needs for social and supportive housing. The current system is a drain on the scarce resources of the Canadian economy, health care and criminal justice systems, and at the same time is not investing these lost funds into the creation of a more sustainable future. Because of these failings, there are both ideological and financial lessons to be learned by examining the successful policy implementations of nations with more supportive social networks than Canada: most notably among these is New Zealand, with a remarkably invisible homeless population and (not coincidentally) a publicly planned source of housing. Even within Canada there exists no shortage of recommendations for possible improvements to be made, offering suggestions to alter or reform the current system through the Canadian agenda once prioritized within the political system. To make the case for these changes, their affordability has been highlighted and their social impact made arguably mandatory. Though a broader change is required than that which would come of implementing only one of all of the available options, the savings associated with some very basic changes could alleviate the cost burden of implementing more expansive future objectives. Though this alteration to policy may be more expensive up front than is desired by today’s politicians, it must be regarded as an investment in Canada’s future state of affairs, and treated as a long-term value. Thus at only a brief glance at the provision of welfare in Canada, there are many obvious improvements which could be implemented atop of the current system to make it more equitable, sustainable and fair: and assuming these to be the primary objectives of a democratic society at work, a great change is needed within the Canadian political and social realm to ensure the rights of all Canadians are justly upheld.


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