Documenting Environmental injustice for Canada’s First Nations

As part of the  Access to Justice week  of the Alberta Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, the Alberta Environmental Law Centre published a blog in September, Access to Environmental Justice: Costs and scientific uncertainty raise barriers to protecting communities  .  This brief blog acts an introduction to the issue of environmental injustice in Canada by providing brief but well-documented overviews of case studies which illustrate the barriers to legal action (procedural costs and evidential uncertainty) experienced by Alberta First Nations. The  specific cases described are Kearl Oil Sands Environmental Assessment (2007), Fort McKay (2016) and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. The blog also notes examples of Sarnia Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and Africville Nova Scotia, and briefly discusses the concept of climate justice. Other current information is described by reporters at The National Observer – for example, “How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands” (April 2019)  and “Alberta officials are signalling they have no idea how to clean up toxic oilsands tailings ponds” (Nov. 2018) .  The Narwhal maintains an archive of articles concerning Canadian mining examples, including the Mount Polley and Taesko mines. One example, “‘This is not Canada’: inside the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s battle against Taseko Mines” (August 2019) .

Syncrude_mildred_lake_plantThe environmental injustice of toxic and chemical waste is not only a problem in Alberta. An overview of the Canadian situation appears in The Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, issued following his visit in May/June 2019.  The Statement identifies “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples. ”  The Statement commented on the specific cases of the oil sands (Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan), Sarnia, Muskrat Falls, and mining sites such as Elk Valley.  He noted that Canada has “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017, increasing significantly from previous years.”  The Special Rapporteur concluded: “It was clear during the course of my visit that many communities in Canada continue to be exploited by toxic exposures.  Some key concerns include: (1) the limited degree of protection of human health and ecosystems under various legislation; (2) the lack of environmental information and monitoring in areas of high risk; (3) long delays or absence of health impact assessment for affected communities; (4) the inadequate compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies; (5) systemic obstacles to access to justice, in particular for cases of health impacts due to chronic exposures; and (6) the recalcitrance to ensure that victims can realize their right to an effective remedy.   The situation of affected communities outside Canada is of equal concern in many of these regards, including the inordinate power imbalance faced by communities in low- and middle-income countries relative to Canadian corporations.”

The complete country  report on Canada by the Special Rapporteur will be delivered to the U.N. General Assembly in Fall 2020.

 

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