Right to a healthy environment recognized in new amendments to Canadian Environmental Protection Act

On April 13 the Government of Canada announced proposed amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), the cornerstone of federal environmental laws. Bill C-28 Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act promises to fast-track the regulatory process for particularly harmful chemicals; encourage companies to avoid toxic chemicals entirely and to phase-in mandatory product labelling , beginning with cosmetics, household cleaning products and flame retardants in upholstery. The Act also recognizes and protects the right of Canadians to a healthy environment. 

The government press release is here; and a  Backgrounder and Plain language summary of key amendments is provided. In addition, the government’s talking points about the CEPA amendments are highlighted in an Opinion piece by John Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, in The National Observer.  The amendments are the culmination of a long process, including hearings by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, which received 66 submissions. The Standing Committee report, Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 made 89 recommendations when it was released in 2017. A summary appeared in the WCR here.  

Right to Healthy Environment proposals

Is a healthy environment a right? New CEPA bill says so”, in The National Observer (April 14, re-posted in The Toronto Star) quotes Joe Castrilli, legal counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  He states: “This bill does not create a right to a healthy environment” …. “There’s a preamble provision which says the government recognizes that … it has the duty to protect the right to a healthy environment. But it doesn’t actually create a remedy for any individual seeking to protect the environment.”

A Joint statement released by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) Breast Cancer Action Quebec , EcoJustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence acknowledges the importance of Bill C-28, points out some weaknesses, and alludes to the debates which clearly lies ahead. From the Joint Statement :  

“Bill C-28 includes amendments to CEPA recognizing – for the first time in federal law – the right to a healthy environment . 156 UN member states already recognize this right in law, treaties and constitutions. The recognition of a right to a healthy environment in CEPA is an important step forward. However, the bill should ensure that this right has a positive impact on the lives of everyone in Canada, especially vulnerable populations who have long been denied environmental justice and disproportionately experience cumulative impacts of multiple interacting hazards. ….Bill C-28 is important as we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic. A strengthened CEPA will be the backbone of a green and just recovery. ….All political parties must now make Bill C-28 a political priority.”

The Right to a Healthy Environment: even more is required to address environmental racism

The environmental rights and protections in Bill C-28 on April 13 come on the heels of private member’s Bill C-230, A National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism (Bill C-230) , which was debated and passed 2nd Reading on March 24. C-230 will now come before the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, with the first meeting scheduled for April 14. C-230 goes further than the CEPA amendments regarding on environmental justice, and calls for the the government to

  • Examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk
  • Collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards
  • Collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes in communities that have been affected by environmental racism
  • Assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province

In addition, it calls for possible amendments to federal laws, policies, and programs, with the involvement of community groups, and with compensation for individuals or communities. A new article (published before the House of Commons vote) appears in Our Times in “Here for all Seasons: A Coalition to Confront Environmental Racism ”  (Feb. 21 2021). It describes some of those community and advocacy groups fighting on this issue, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The Labour Day 2020 issue of Our Times, summarized here, describes the role of labour unions in the struggle against environmental racism – in which CBTU has been prominent.

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