Last week, I was proud to speak at a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR). I was invited to talk about public participation in government decision-making and what the EBR means to our work at Ecojustice, the work we do for you.

Something worth celebrating
We were celebrating because Ontario’s EBR remains, even after 20 years, the only standalone law in all of Canada that gives residents a voice in government’s environmental decision-making. The EBR provides for transparency, public participation, and accountability by providing legal tools we use to hold government accountable to you.

These tools include:

  • A right to know about and have a say in proposed laws, regulations, policies and instruments (e.g., approvals, licences, permits);
  • A right to ask that a law, regulation or policy be reviewed or ask that the government consider filling a legal or policy gap;
  • A right to ask that the government investigate environmental law violations.

In preparing for the conference, I was asked to reflect on a couple questions. First, “What lessons have you learned using the EBR’s tools?” And second, “Do you have any suggestions for the public?”

What immediately came to mind was this advice: Don’t measure success only in terms of the outcome from use of an EBR tool. I remembered how Ontarians fought to get a new law to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine and the role that the EBR played in that effort.

This success story didn’t begin with the EBR and it didn’t end with the EBR. But the EBR was one of the tools that Ontarians used on the path from recognition of a problem to a legislated outcome.

The EBR and the Oak Ridges Moraine
In 1999, residents of Richmond Hill, Markham and King City (as well as other municipalities) began to oppose urban sprawl on the Oak Ridges Moraine. The groups were fighting to protect this precious ecosystem from quarries and housing developments.

In March 2000, with the assistance of Ecojustice lawyers, Ontario Nature and Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition used the EBR to ask government to consider the need for a new law, regulation or policy to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. This Application for Review, together with a similar Application filed by two Toronto city councillors, asked for a temporary moratorium on development, endorsement of a multi-stakeholder strategy for long-term protection of the Moraine, and new legal protections through legislation or policy.

In May 2000, the Ministries denied the EBR Application for Review.

More than one way to protect Oak Ridges Moraine using the EBR
Though discouraging, the fact that the government denied the opportunity to do a review under the EBR was not the end to efforts seeking protection for the Moraine.

In May 2001, the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act was passed, which halted development on the Moraine for six months.

In August 2001, the government released Share Your Vision for the Oak Ridges Moraine on the Environmental Registry – an online database that fulfills the EBR’s mandate that Ontarians be informed about “environmentally significant decisions.” Ontarians were given the opportunity to make public comments, pursuant to the public participation requirements of the EBR.

As well, in October 2001, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – an environmental watchdog who monitors and reports on how government is adhering to the EBR – released an annual report recommending “… that [the] Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, in consultation with other ministries and the public, develop a comprehensive long-term protection strategy for the Oak Ridges Moraine.

The outcome of government’s public consultation was the decision to introduce the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, which ensures that all future development is aimed at protection of the ecological and hydrological integrity of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

I can’t tell you that the EBR alone is what led to this legal victory. But I do know that it gave Ontarians like you a voice. And eventually, the government made a decision that echoed what that voice was saying all along.

Finding room for improvement
Our 20 years of experience with the EBR demonstrates that it is effective at ensuring public participation, transparency and accountability.

The EBR isn’t perfect. It doesn’t give you the right to use legal action when the government makes a decision that violates your right to a healthy and safe environment. But it does provide a very sound foundation for continuous improvement.

Speaking of improvement, lawyers at Ecojustice and the Canadian Environmental Law Association are using the EBR to ask the Ministry of the Environment to review and fix portions of this important law so that it works better for Ontarians.