It’s time for Canada’s laws to recognize that environmental rights are human rights.
Last week Toronto became the 100th municipality in Canada to pass a declaration supporting its residents’ right to a healthy environment. This means that more than 10 million people in Canada now live in communities where their local governments recognize that they should have the basic human right to clean air, safe drinking water and a stable climate.
A year ago, we helped launch the Blue Dot movement, a national grassroots campaign to advance the legal protection of all Canadians’ right to live in a healthy environment. We knew this was a concept that resonated with Canadians — polling we conducted before the campaign told us that 85 per cent believe environmental rights should be included in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Still, we were amazed by the way this concept galvanized communities from coast to coast to coast in both official languages. From 11-year-old Rupert Yakelashek in Victoria to 78-year-old Silver Donald Cameron in Halifax, people are taking extraordinary action to achieve remarkable results. One by one, communities across Canada have organized and inspired their local governments to recognize one simple truth: Environmental rights are human rights.
Now it’s time for Ottawa to step up. With all eyes on the new federal government and its oft-repeated promise to deliver “real change,” we can think of no better way to signal a deep commitment to this promise and to the people of Canada than by introducing strong federal environmental rights legislation, such as an environmental bill of rights.
An effective environmental bill of rights would do two important things. First, it would require the Canadian government to recognize that every person in Canada has the right to live in a healthy environment. In more concrete terms, this could mean establishing binding air and drinking water quality standards and enforceable carbon pollution reduction targets. It could also mandate stronger protections for nature — the boreal forest, wetlands and wildlife that are among this country’s most precious assets.
Second, an effective environmental bill of rights would provide a stronger set of tools for people who want to address environmental concerns. For example, it would guarantee people’s right to participate in environmental decision-making (pipeline reviews come to mind) and — in exceptional cases — take legal action against polluters.
More broadly, an environmental bill of rights could act as a powerful interim step on the way to recognizing the right to a healthy environment in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It could also catalyze dramatic and much-needed improvements to Canada’s patchwork of environmental laws. After the damage done over the last decade, incremental and piecemeal amendments to our laws will not suffice. We don’t just need to get back to where we were 10 years ago; we should be looking ahead to what we need to do to address 21st-century threats to our health and well-being, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
These threats are the consequences of pitting short-term industry interests against long-term environmental sustainability — a false choice. Challenges of this magnitude demand systemic solutions, namely recognizing every person in Canada’s right to a healthy environment. Meaningful federal leadership on this issue could mark the beginning of a long-overdue paradigm shift in which the links between a healthy environment and the human right to life, liberty and security of the person are enshrined in law.
Recognizing the right to a healthy environment is the natural next step in the progression of human rights law in Canada. Across the world during the last 50 years, the right to a healthy environment has gained legal recognition faster than any other human right. It’s not hard to see why: Evidence from other countries demonstrates that recognizing the right to a healthy environment can lead to stronger laws, healthier communities, healthier ecosystems and innovative, resilient economies.
Polls demonstrate Canadians’ emphatic support for the concept of environmental rights, as does the tidal wave of municipal declarations. Again and again, Canadians tell us that clean air, safe drinking water and a stable climate are among their top priorities. Now it’s up to the federal government to make good on its promises to listen to Canadians and deliver concrete solutions that address these concerns.
This one is easy. More than 110 countries already recognize their citizens’ right to healthy environment in law. It’s time for Canada to join the international consensus. Our health, and the environment upon which we all depend, can’t wait.
Devon Page is executive director of Ecojustice and Peter Robinson is chief executive officer of the David Suzuki Foundation. The David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice are partners in the Blue Dot movement, a national grassroots campaign to advance the legal protection of all Canadians’ right to live in a healthy environment.