News / Vancouver

Advocates push for 'right to a healthy environment' for all Canadians

Peter Wood, David Suzuki Foundation campaign manager, says Earth Day 2018 would be 'a good day to shoot for' action on an environmental rights bill.

A dog drinks from the waters of the Columbia River in the shadow of the Teck Cominco smelter, about six miles north of the Canadian border at Trail, B.C. in this 2002 file photo.

CHERYL HATCH / CP/Hamilton Spectator

A dog drinks from the waters of the Columbia River in the shadow of the Teck Cominco smelter, about six miles north of the Canadian border at Trail, B.C. in this 2002 file photo.

Canada could enshrine the "right to a healthy environment" into law for the first time.

Environmental groups in British Columbia are cautiously optimistic after Canada's environment minister said earlier this month she's "considering" calls to strengthen the country's environmental laws, including the rights proposal.

"We’re really excited," Peter Wood, David Suzuki Foundation's environmental rights campaign manager, said in a phone interview, "because for the first time in Canadian history there’s a potential to get environmental rights into federal law. But that sits before the minister; she’s got her finger on the button and can make a law happen."

The idea behind environmental rights, explained Wood, "is saying each person has the right to not be polluted — and that personal right extends to the right to have control over decisions that will affect one’s environment as well as the right to know and transparency around decision making."

The idea has long been proposed by green advocates, but in June got a boost when the federal Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development released a report urging a "strengthening" of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, unchanged since 1999.

It recommended CEPA be reformed "to recognize a right to a healthy environment" and the "importance of considering vulnerable populations in risk assessments."

Wood said that's vital, because pollution often occurs near Indigenous and low-income communities who bear the brunt of impacts, and of children and seniors more vulnerable to health effects.

On Oct. 6, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wrote the committee's chair, agreeing that "environmental and health risks have evolved since this act was passed" and that the Liberal government "agrees … that changes are needed to modernize and improve CEPA."

McKenna, however, also argued that current legislation already "allows the government of Canada to take action to protect Canadians from the environmental and human health impacts of a wide range of pollution sources."

But she stopped short of endorsing any of the recommendations, saying merely that Ottawa "commits to considering each of the committees recommendations carefully." She vowed to respond by next June. That, Wood said, is the absolute latest to realistically pass legislation before the next federal election — and that window is closing.

"We want them to move a bill by April," Wood mused. "We suggested Earth Day on Apr. 22 as a good day to shoot for.

"We need a bill."

More on Metronews.ca