When it comes to developed nations Canada is a laggard on the environmental rights front. Legally speaking, Canadians don’t enjoy the right to a healthy environment like the citizens of 93 per cent of UN member countries do.
But that could all change in light of a new set of recommendations delivered to Ottawa by a standing committee tasked with reviewing the federal Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Among those recommendations were instituting legal minimums for air and water quality standards, annual reporting on the state of Canada’s environment, new rules around disclosure of toxic substances in consumer goods and the creation of special protections for Canada’s vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, First Nations and poor communities most likely to be affected by poor environmental health.
“We’re celebrating this as a first step,” Kaitlyn Mitchell, Ecojustice lawyer, told DeSmog Canada.
Ecojustice and the David Suzuki Foundation have been fighting for the right to a healthy environment in Canada since the launch of the Blue Dot campaign in 2014.
“Although it’s a new concept in Canada, what we’ve seen around the world is the right to healthy environment has spread faster than any other human right in last 50 years,” Mitchell said.
“What a right to a healthy environment means practically speaking is not a right to a pristine environment that’s free from all pollution, but it does mean a right to environmental quality that is conducive to health and wellbeing.”
The committee also recommended empowering citizens to bring legal action against government found negligent or in violation of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
“It means the government can’t act in a way that will pollute your environment so much that it will put your health at risk,” Mitchell said.
Peter Wood, environmental rights campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation, said the language in the committee’s report could be a “game changer” for Canadians.
“Even though the individual acronyms sound boring, this is about protecting vulnerable populations, First Nations, children and the elderly in particular.”
Enshrining a fundamental right to a healthy environment means having protections that are enforceable, Wood said.
“Think about a time prior to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Wood said. “There are some things we take right now for granted, gender equity and racial non-discrimination. Could you imagine if those were left to some sort of consultation? Or were less than absolute? That’s what we’re talking about here with air and water quality standards."
The right to a healthy environment could make a big difference for pollution hot spots in Canada, such as Ontario’s chemical valley in Sarnia.
An analysis performed by Ecojustice found the right to a healthy environment has helped similar hot spots in countries like Brazil, but are not available to Canadian cities like Sarnia.
“Canada is very far behind other countries,” Mitchell said. “Ultimately what we want to see is a standalone law that all can have the right to a healthy environment.”
“That would apply across the board, to communities living near major industrial facilities like mines, and small First Nations communities living near Sarnia’s chemical valley.”
Wood added the recommendations are far from law.
“There is some political sausage-making left, “ Wood said. “It’s not a done deal.”
The recommendations will go from the standing committee to Cabinet before heading for a legal review with the Justice Department. The recommendations will then be debated in Parliament.
“We know the last time this sort of strong protection for environmental rights was proposed, the chemical industry, powerful lobby groups, pushed back. Government will be under pressure to weaken it.”
“We know we have to get the public interested in it to make sure this sees the light of day.”
Image: Crystal Water Guest Ranch trail ride in B.C.'s Cariboo, Chilcoltin region. Photo: Ranch Seeker via Flickr