Political parties need to make Bill C-28 a priority

After years of campaigning by committed activists, environmental groups and health advocates, the federal government tabled the Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (Bill C-28).  If passed, the bill would modernize the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) for the first time since 1999.  That law, intended to protect all people in Canada and their environment from toxic chemicals and harmful pollution, is woefully out-of-date and ill-equipped to keep people safe from modern harms.

Now, all federal parties must make strengthening and passing Bill C-28 a political priority.

For the first time in Canadian federal law, Bill C-28 recognizes that every person in Canada has the legal right to a healthy environment, but Bill C-28 requires amendments to make this right truly impactful.

While recognition of the right to a healthy environment in CEPA is a significant step forward for environmental justice in Canada, amendments to Bill C-28 are needed to remove problematic clauses that allow for the consideration of economic interests in applying the right.

Already enshrined in the constitutions, laws, court decisions or regional treaties of 156 other UN member states, the right to a healthy environment  is central to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the right to life, health, food, water and sanitation.

The right to be protected  from the impacts of toxic substances and harmful pollution should be embedded strongly in CEPA and not qualified by economic interests. Every person in Canada must have an unqualified right to live safely in their community without fear that the right can be violated by polluters or industries that use toxic chemicals.

If given real force, the right to a healthy environment would strengthen protections for communities and individuals across Canada, particularly people in vulnerable situations, such as people living in polluted communities  or individuals who are biologically more sensitive to the harms caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

Bill C-28 requires the government to prepare a framework to implement the right to a healthy environment that elaborates on environmental justice — including the avoidance of adverse effects that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations — and the principle of non-regression to ensure laws cannot be weakened.

While a framework could help address the shameful environmental inequality faced by many Black, Indigenous and people of colour and lower income communities in Canada, it would be more forceful to place these requirements directly in the operational sections of CEPA rather than relegate them to a section about the framework document.

Bill C-28 will begin to address the cumulative impacts of a range of toxic chemicals and harmful pollution. Cumulative effects recognizes that people are exposed to more than one dangerous substance at a time.

In places like Chemical Valley near Sarnia Ontario,  numerous chemical plants and refineries emit pollution impacting neighbouring communities such as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, creating a “toxic soup” of air pollution. The new legislation would require the federal government to consider the available information on the cumulative effects of different substances when assessing the risks of chemicals and pollution. Assessing cumulative effects  could lead to stronger regulation of industry in pollution hotspots like Chemical Valley.

For the first time under CEPA, Bill C-28 will require the federal government to take vulnerable populations into account when making decisions about the regulation of toxic substances. Bill C-28 defines a vulnerable population as a group of individuals who, due to greater susceptibility or greater exposure, may be at an increased risk of experiencing adverse health effects from exposure to substances.

Bill C-28 will also require the federal government to prioritize the prohibition of substances of the “highest risk”. However, the bill leaves defining “highest risk” to regulation, and the term “highest risk” is open to debate regarding what substances actually constitute the “highest” level of risk. While amendments to CEPA have long been needed to ensure substances that are highly toxic to human health are banned, Bill C-28 falls short by using confusing language and leaving the details to a future unspecified regulation.

All federal parties must now make strengthening and passing Bill C-28 a political priority. In a minority parliament, there is no time to waste and all politicians must work together to move this bill to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development for review and important amendments.

Canadians cannot afford to wait another 21 years for a federal government to muster up the courage to update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and finally deliver the  environmental justice it has denied to so many of its constituents.

This was written with contributions from Sean O’Shea, of the Ecojustice communications team.