Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on October 30, 2012 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Do Canadians Have Environmental Rights?

Margot VentonLawyer

No, but they should.

A “right” is much more than a simple law or regulation. The rights recognized by any government represent the shared values of a society and the freedoms and privileges each individual in that society is entitled to. The right to life, liberty, and security as well as the fundamental freedoms of religion, thought and expression recognized in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms are all examples of the fundamental values that shape our country. But to date, the fundamental right to a healthy environment is missing from that list – something Ecojustice is working to change.

Thanks in no small part to Ecojustice’s groundbreaking work developing model legislation for environmental rights, a historic federal bill that would enshrine the right of all Canadians to a healthy environment was given its first reading before Parliament on October 29th. That event was followed today by the release of Restoring the Balance, Ecojustice’s latest report outlining a leading path for the recognition of environmental rights in BC.

This work is more than a simple gesture. In the words of Ecojustice lawyer Will Amos, “Environmental health is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and having the right to environmental health is a critical part of solving many of our environmental challenges.

If that sounds extreme, it is only because we are used to ignoring the fact that people can’t be separated from the natural environment. Recognizing the legal rights to “life, liberty, and security” without also recognizing the environment that those rights exist within is the equivalent of recognizing words while ignoring the paper they’re written on. In the end, you can’t have one without the other.

Canadian provinces and territories have realized this, with Ontario, Quebec, Yukon and the Northwest Territories all recognizing environmental rights for their citizens. Likewise, 85 countries throughout the world have joined this recognition by enshrined environmental rights in their national constitutions. Canada is conspicuously absent from this list.

Rights are a reflection of what matters most to a society, and at this point in history, few things pose a greater risk to the health and well-being of individuals as the health of our planet. Canadians recognize this. It’s time for our governments to do the same.

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