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End Environmental Racism in Canada: A Campaign for Environmental Rights

By Megan Francisco, Declan Ta, and Sarah Pudritz.

Supervised by Kai Chan, December 2022.

As the climate changes, habitat degradation continues, and environmental pollution worsens, Canadians are feeling increasingly helpless about the environments in which we live. Environmental grief and anxiety is on the rise in Canada, especially among youth. We can't help but feel our concerns are being ignored by our governments. The government is perceived as prioritizing economic growth over the mental and physical health of its people, and the health of the environment in which they live. CoSphere notes (Leverage Point 3) that inaction on environmental issues is often due to a lack of tools with which people can take action – feelings of environmental responsibility thus sit as latent values.

Enter the right to a healthy environment. Established at the UN and adopted by 156 countries around the world, this human rights legislation allows people to present legal challenges to environmentally destructive legislation. These laws “are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful,” says David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment.

In Canada, the right to a healthy environment is especially important as a tool for combating environmental racism. Marginalized communities are often the hardest hit by pollution and environmental contamination. The United Nations echoes this statement by noting that “marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable in respect of other groups in Canada”.

Environmental contamination is not only degrading ecosystems, but it is causing a serious human health crisis in marginalized communities across Canada. Aamjiwnaang First Nation and residents of Sarnia, Ontario are situated in what is known as Chemical Valley, a region that houses 40% of Canada’s chemical industry. The environmental state of Chemical Valley has led to devastating impacts on the health of its residents. Cancer causing chemicals, such as benzene, are found in the air surrounding the region at a level 44% higher than what is considered safe. Chemical Valley’s impact on marginalized people is far from the only case of environmental racism in Canada. Some other examples include: the dumping of regional waste in the African-Canadian community of Africville, Nova Scotia; mercury poisoning in the Anishinaabe community of Grassy Narrows; and the continued neglect of the Federal Government to provide clean drinking water in many First Nations communities.

Legislating the right to a healthy environment has been proven to strengthen environmental laws and prevent the sort of pollution and environmental destruction that disproportionately affects marginalized communities in Canada.

Until now, Canada has been one of just a handful of countries that does not have any national legal provisions for environmental rights. However Bill S-5, currently before the House of Commons, is proposing to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA,1999) to include a provision designed to secure Canadians the right to a healthy environment. Unfortunately, the strong lobbying power of polluting industries (e.g., oil and gas) have influenced how CEPA may be amended. The proposed amendment is written in a way that courts can only recognize “the right of every individual in Canada to a healthy environment as provided under this Act, subject to any reasonable limits”, which are further described as “social, health, scientific and economic factors”.

Courts already interpret rights in a context that considers relevant social, health, scientific and economic factors: we do not need our environmental legislation watered down. In using this wording, the Federal Government will continue to allow industries to pollute our air, land, and water on the premise that this pollution is necessary to support the Canadian economy. This clause dangerously elevates economic considerations to the same status as fundamental human rights. It would never be acceptable to allow economic considerations to override other human rights, so why would we introduce this loophole when it comes to environmental rights?

If CEPA were amended without the loophole that environmental rights may be balanced with economic factors, all Canadians would be granted the right to a clean and healthy environment. A strong environmental rule of law is desperately needed to enable communities who have been subjected to dangerously-high levels of pollutants and neglect from the Federal Government to fight for their wellbeing.

This is a pivotal moment in leveraging our voices for environmental justice and legislative change. We can secure ourselves a right desperately needed to fight for social justice and environmental protection, or we can forever squander the potential to have a meaningful right to a healthy environment.

What we can do to stop this amendment: don’t be silent.

There are several key players in government right now that may be able to reverse this amendment. We have email templates that you can use for inspiration to write to:

1. Your MP: click here

2. Canada’s Environment Minister and NDP Environment Critic: click here

3. House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, which is currently reviewing this bill and the amendment: click here

If you really want to be heard, meet with your MP. Be respectful, and make your case. Hearing from someone directly is far more impactful than a letter.

Finally, consider signing this petition to add your voice in calling for the right to a healthy environment and sending an email to your MP and key legislators!

The opportunity to strengthen this right will be gone unless we act now, before Bill S-5 goes back to the House for a third reading. Please help us in strengthening Canada’s laws to protect people and the environment, while paving the way for a more sustainably-governed society.

Alternatively, a linktree with all our platforms is available:

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