Ecojustice lawyers represented Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain, two members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, in their fight to ensure that the health of people living in one of Canada’s most polluted communities – Sarnia’s Chemical Valley – is protected.
The approximately 800 residents of Aamjiwnaag live next to industrial facilities that account for approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry. In 2011, the World Health Organization said that the people of Sarnia breathe some of the most polluted air in all of Canada.
Our clients asked the court to declare that an order issued by Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment that allows Suncor Energy Products to increase production at part of its Sarnia refinery violated their Charter rights. Our clients believe that the government’s failure to take into account the cumulative effects of pollution from all the industrial activity around their community violates Ada and Ron’s basic human rights under sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – their rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to equality.
In the years since the case was filed in 2011, the Ontario government has started to fix some of the problems that led Ada and Ron to take legal action. That’s why, on our advice as their legal counsel, Ada and Ron have withdrawn the lawsuit. To achieve our shared goal of reducing harmful pollution in Ontario communities, we’re now focusing our energy on ensuring the government makes good on its new initiatives — starting with its efforts in Chemical Valley.
We believe all Canadians have a right to breathe clean air and that governments have a responsibility to protect people and communities from unsafe levels of industrial pollution. The unjust distribution of the country’s pollution burden and, the impact for Aboriginal communities like Aamjiwnaang, has both health and human rights implications.
We are concerned by the Ontario government’s practice of assessing each source of air pollution individually to determine whether emissions fall within safe limits. Instead, Ron and Ada believe Ontario should assess cumulative impacts in pollution “hot spots” like Chemical Valley by evaluating overall air quality to determine whether a new source of pollution would raise emissions from all sources to an unsafe level.
Immediate, on-the-ground change is desperately needed in Chemical Valley and other pollution hot spots in Ontario. That’s why we are putting down one tool and picking up another — changing course, at least for now, from litigating to working with Ada, Ron, and the Aamjiwnaang community to ensure that Ontario’s new initiatives lead to durable community solutions.
Working with Ada and Ron has deepened our commitment to advancing the recognition and protection of the basic human right to a healthy environment — including clean air, safe drinking water, and a stable climate. When we first launched this case, few people in Canada had an understanding of what “environmental rights” were. Five years later, a groundswell of public support has led more than 130 municipalities, representing a third of Canada’s population, to pass declarations in support environmental rights.
This is remarkable progress. Recognizing the right to a healthy environment is the natural next step in the progression of human rights law in Canada, and we look forward to seeing Canada’s governments take action on this front in the coming months and years.