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.

Environmental justice in Canada: A labour union call to action, and evidence from the UN Special Rapporteur

  “We will not rest, we will not stop: Building for better in a post-pandemic recovery” appeared in the Labour Day issue of Our Times magazine, written by Yolanda McClean and Christopher Wilson, executive officers of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). Set in the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the article states: “The calls to intensify the struggle against Canada’s police violence, economic apartheid and environmental racism are resounding.  …Anti-Indigenous, anti-Black and systemic racism extend beyond our political structures to our education and healthcare systems, to our corporations, workplaces, communities and, yes, to our labour movement.  (On this point, the authors refer to “Dear White Sisters & Brothers,” an Open Letter by unionist Carol Wall which appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Our Times).

Wilson and McClean call upon the labour movement, stating: “A labour vision for a post-pandemic recovery must confront structural racial inequalities and advocate for the inclusion of BIPOC communities — economically, politically and socially.”   As positive examples, the article cites the Ontario Federation of Labour, which joined with the CBTU in a joint statement in July, stating: “As allies, we must act now and support the call to defund the police”. Wilson and McClean also highlight the CBTU’s “Green Is Not White” Environmental Racism research project, and its associated webinar “What Can Unions Do to Stop Environmental Racism?” , produced by the CBTU, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, and York University’s Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW).   

UN Special Rapporteur reviews toxic chemicals in Canada and concludes: Environmental injustice persists in Canada

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, Mr. Baskut Tuncak, officially visited Canada in May/June 2019, and presented his resulting Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in early September 2020. The report states clearly that “Environmental injustice persists in Canada. A significant proportion of the population in Canada experience racial discrimination, with Indigenous, and racialized people, the most widely considered to experience discriminatory treatment.” The report focused on the extractive industries (defined as “mining of metals and oil sands”) in Canada and abroad – noting that over 50% of the world’s multinational mining companies are based in Canada. The report also discusses oil and gas pipelines, and chemical industries (including pesticides in agriculture). After documenting many specific examples, the Rapporteur concludes with recommendations for legislative and regulatory changes.

Excerpted highlights from the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics :

“….Contamination from extractive industries, including the massive tailing ponds in Alberta, and the possibility of seeping into local water supplies, is of concern.

… despite compliance with the Fisheries Act, 76% of metal mines have confirmed effects on fish, fish habitat or both. Among these mines, 92% confirmed at least one effect of a magnitude that may be indicative of a higher risk to the environment.

….The health risks posed to Indigenous peoples by the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry are another example of concerns. Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) paint a disturbing picture of health impacts of the oil sands (i.e. tar sands) that were not properly investigated for years, despite increasing evidence of health impacts on local communities.

 … the situation of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia is profoundly unsettling. Deeply connected with their land, residents on the reservation invaded by industry as far back as the 1940s are now surrounded on three sides by over 60 industrial facilities that create the physiological and mental stress among community members …It is one of the most polluted places in Canada, dubbed “chemical valley.” ….   

…Workers are unquestionably vulnerable regarding their unique and elevated risks to chemical exposures. In Canada, occupational diseases and disabilities due to such exposures pose a major challenge to fulfilment of workers’ rights. Recent estimates show over 2.9 million workers are exposed to carcinogens and other hazardous substances at work, which is a gross underestimation.. ”  

Labour activists raising environmental justice issues in Canada’s climate change policy

ourtimes cover-Chris JawaraThe featured article in the Winter 2018 issue of Our Times is  “A Green Economy for All” , which describes the action-research project Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities: An Environmental Justice Perspective.   The ultimate goal: to equip Black trade unionists and racialized activists in Canada with the tools they need to influence the public policy debate over climate change, to ensure that the new green economy does not look the same as the old white economy.   With important inspiration from the Idle No More movement and the Indigenous experience in Canada, the project began with research into what has already been written about environmental racism in Canada, along with  a participatory social media campaign using the Twitter hashtag #EnvRacismCBTUACW,  to solicit more information about lived experience.  The project has now reached its second phase, designing and facilitating workshops to develop activism around the issue.  The first of these workshops  was presented to the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) in December 2017.  Facilitation questions, case studies and workshop information will be made publicly available, with the goal of engaging other social and political activists, as well as the labour movement.

The Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities  project was launched in 2017 by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project at York University,  in collaboration with Coalition of Black Trade Unionists , and is being led by Chris Wilson, Ontario Regional Coordinator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and  PSAC Ontario union negotiator Jawara Gairey.

“A Green Economy for All”  also mentions the work of the Toronto Environmental Alliance , which produced a map of toxic concentrations in the city in 2005, and the forthcoming book  There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities,  which highlights the grassroots resistance against environmental racism in Nova Scotia, and is written by Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University  and  Director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project (The ENRICH Project).