Feds enshrine right to healthy environment


More than five years after the federal government was asked to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in its environmental protection law, she is campaigning for this.

But it will take two more years to find out exactly what that means in practice.

The amendment to Canada’s Environmental Protection Act is one of 87 recommendations to the government made in 2017 when the House of Commons Environment Committee completed a mandatory review of the Act.

In 2018, then-Environment Secretary Catherine McKenna said the government would wait until after the 2019 election to table the legislation and spend the months in between deliberating on the best course of action.

It took the government until April 2021 to introduce the change, but that bill died without debate when the 2021 election was called in August. A nearly identical bill was re-submitted to the Senate in February.

Canada’s Environmental Protection Act is colloquially known as CEPA (pronounced SEEPA). It is the legislation that determines which chemicals can and cannot be used in Canada and how toxic chemicals must be used and disposed of.

It’s the law designed to protect people from things like asbestos, mercury and lead. This enabled Canada to ban bisphenol A in baby bottles in 2010 and helped reduce mercury emissions in air and water by more than 60 percent since 2007.

Recently, the government added plastic waste to its list of toxic substances, arguing that it poses a risk to human and animal health, allowing Ottawa to ban certain types of single-use plastic, such as straws, cutlery and take-out containers.

It also aims to provide guidance to companies that manufacture various chemicals on how to evaluate and approve them for use.

The new bill updates how these toxic substances will be evaluated, including the requirement to look for safer alternatives, data on cumulative effects when combined with other substances, and whether they can cause cancer long-term.

The new law also adds a clause guaranteeing that every Canadian has the “right” to a healthy environment and makes it a government duty to protect that right.

“This is the first time this right has been incorporated into federal law in Canada,” Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault told the Senate Environment Committee on Thursday.

However, the legislation states that the government has up to two years after the bill comes into force to determine how this right will be implemented when enforcing the law.

Guilbeault said this will provide guidance on how the right to a healthy environment will be considered in enforcing CEPA, including the principle of environmental justice, which addresses unfair exposure to pollutants, often by marginalized communities.

But Senator Dennis Patterson of Nunavut says it’s bizarre to pass legislation when the government itself doesn’t know what the legislation will actually do.

“Shouldn’t we understand what that right would give Canadians and how to implement it?” he asked. “Otherwise, I believe we are introducing unnecessary uncertainty into any process that relies on CEPA for clarity and certainty.”

Guilbeault said that every legislator knows that you can’t define a legal element in regulation until that element exists.

Canadian environmental advocate David Boyd, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said more than 100 countries already have a legal right to a healthy environment and it’s not complicated to define.

“It means people have a right to breathe clean air, they have a right to safe and adequate water supplies, to healthy and sustainably produced food, to healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and to non-toxic environments in which people live , work, learn and play and a safe climate.”

He said it should also mean that people have access to information about their surroundings, can participate in the process to make decisions about their surroundings and can take legal action if they feel their rights are being threatened or threatened get hurt.

Boyd said the law would be much stronger if it spelled out what options they have if they feel the government is failing in its duty to protect their right to a healthy environment.

And he wishes Canada would do what most other countries have done and make it a constitutional right, although he acknowledges that that is itself a toxic can of worms.

Guilbeault said the government has no intention of opening this can for this.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 28, 2022.