The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) has finally been reformed for the first time in more than two decades.
CEPA is Canada’s cornerstone law for protecting human health and the environment from pollution and toxic substances.
In the past 20 years, our scientific understanding of the impacts of environmental and toxic pollution has greatly evolved. We now know that there is no real safe threshold for exposure to toxic chemicals or air pollution – even at low doses, their effects can be detrimental to human and ecosystem health.
That is why we need a modern law that protects our health and the people, species, and places we care about from these harmful substances.
In April 2021, the federal government tabled Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (Bill C-28) that would finally bring important modernization to CEPA.
However, when a federal election was called in 2021 and voters elected a new Parliament, Bill C-28 died on the order paper.
The incoming government once again committed to reform CEPA, and in February 2022 they reintroduced proposed legislation for CEPA reform as Bill S-5 before the Senate, intending to pass the legislation in the upper chamber before it goes through the legislative process in the House.
In June 2023, Bill S-5 passed into law.
Passage of Bill S-5 represents important progress for the following reasons:
- It introduces long-overdue updates for the control of toxic substances and dangerous chemicals, including requiring that priority be given to prohibiting the most hazardous substances. The bill also updates the framework for assessing and managing toxic substances and improves transparency and accountability.
- The right to a healthy environment will be recognized for the first time under federal law. The legislation establishes a new duty for the government to uphold the principles of environmental justice, intergenerational equity, and non-regression — ensuring environmental protections cannot be rolled back. It also requires the federal government to consider the cumulative impacts of toxics, and their effects on vulnerable populations.
There is more to do to complete the process of CEPA modernization, including removing barriers to citizen lawsuits when there are violations of the Act, action on air quality, labelling of hazardous substances in consumer products, and strengthening control of genetically engineered animals.
The Minister of Environment and Climate Change has indicated that he intends to introduce a second piece of legislation that builds on the reforms of Bill S-5.