The triple environmental threat of climate change, biodiversity destruction, and pollution is making us one of the most dangerous human rights crises in our history. The rights of present and future generations depend on a healthy environment — indeed many of our human rights depend on this.
Canada has the chance to recognize the right of healthy environment and make a just transition to a more environmentally-friendly and socially equitable country.
The historic United Nations Human Rights Council made a historic decision. Recent votesin favor of recognizing the right for a healthy environment. This right has been recognized by 156 countries. Canada is not one of them. Parliament has the opportunity to rectify this and honour the council’s resolution, but it must move quickly.
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The Liberal government had introduced a bill to do exactly that last April, but it was rejected by the order paper along with the election call. On February 9, the Senate introduced Bill S-5, which was the same bill.
This bill will amend Canada’s most important law on toxics and pollution — the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) — to include the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. The law is outdated, putting Canadians at great risk. However, successive governments have failed to modernize it.
Civil society and legal experts agree that CEPA modernization should be a top priority of this government. However, Bill S-5 contains many flaws that must be fixed. Most notably, the right to a healthy environment must not be limited by a requirement that this be “balanced” against economic factors.
The inclusion of this loophole is troubling and lays bare the government’s willingness to let business interests override the health of less-powerful communities. This is precisely the reason why some populations are disproportionately affected by toxics and pollution, which is exactly what environmental rights are supposed to address. This includes Indigenous, Black and other racialized or low-income communities, women and children with disabilities, and any other vulnerable people, as documented in a Special UN report 2020On the health effects of toxics and polluting in Canada
It fails to recognize the urgency and magnitude of the many interconnected crises we face. Last summer, we saw the devastating effects of climate change. 569 British Columbians died in a heat wave, mainly seniors from low-income communities..
Then, in November, flooding and deadly landslides resulted from a record-breaking “atmospheric river” of precipitation in the same region. Extreme events such as these are likely to become more frequent, increasing the threat of air pollution.Canada’s premature deaths are estimated at 15,000 per year. These crises act like threat multipliers, amplifying conflict and structural inequalities, putting people in increasingly vulnerable situations. They highlight the need to recognize the right to a healthy environmental environment and protect it. This right has allowed countries to take more aggressive action on climate change and have achieved better environmental outcomes overall.
Canada’s citizens are proud to have universal health care, though it is imperfect. But until we recognize the right of universal environmental health, this deeply held Canadian value could be at risk.
Opinion: The right to a healthy environment must not be limited by a requirement that this be “balanced” against economic factors, write Tara Scurr, Ingrid Waldron, Jane McArthur, Naolo Charles & Peter Wood.
More than 90% of Canadians support recognition of environmental rights, and more then 100 MPs representing all major parties. Already pledged their supportThe list is growing. This would support the Liberals’ 2021 campaign promiseTo develop a strategy for addressing environmental injustice. It will be based upon an examination of the links between race and socio-economic status. It will complement efforts to redress under-reporting of environmental racism. Bill C-226.
With the introduction of Bill S-5 in the Senate, Canada now has the opportunity to do it right by passing a bill that brings Canada in line with most of the world in recognizing the right to a healthy environment — one that centres the health of people in Canada above the economic interests of polluting companies.
To make this a priority, it must be made before the next election. In the face of increasing threats, communities across the country should know that their rights and health are top priorities.
It is now that this fundamental right can be recognized and protected. The risks of delay are too great already and will only increase.