UPDATE: We’re pleased to report that on May 5 2016, members of the Nova Scotia Legislature introduced an Environmental Rights bill.

If it becomes law, the bill could improve water and air quality standards, help impacted communities overcome barriers to environmental justice and set a powerful example for other Canadian jurisdictions to follow.

Read the piece below to learn how provincial environmental rights legislation could benefit Nova Scotians, and stay tuned for more updates as they happen!

Editor’s note: This commentary first appeared in the September 5, 2015 edition of the Chronicle Herald.

By Kaitlyn Mitchell and Lisa Mitchell

In the last 50 years, environmental rights have gained recognition faster than any other human right.

Canada, however, has yet to take steps to guarantee each and every Canadian resident a minimum standard of environmental quality — including access to clean air and water. Today, it is one of only eight United Nations countries that do not recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment.

But change is in the air. In the last year, Blue Dot, a burgeoning citizen-led movement has inspired 80 municipalities across the country — including Yarmouth, N.S. — to adopt declarations recognizing their residents’ right to live in healthy environment.

These declarations signal that Canadians are ready to embrace the concept of environmental rights. It is easy to see why: Evidence from around the world demonstrates that recognizing the right to a healthy environment can lead to stronger laws, healthier communities, and economic resiliency.

Filmmaker Silver Donald Cameron shines a light on this issue in his new documentary, Defenders of the Dawn: Green Rights in the Maritimes (CBC, Sept. 5, 8 pm). It shows first-hand the experiences of Maritimers struggling to protect their right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

Marlene Brown, Melissa King, and Jonathan Andrews are three people from the community of Harrietsfield, located just 20 minutes outside of Halifax. For years, they have been unable to safely drink the tap water in their homes because of groundwater contamination linked to a local construction and demolition facility.

Ecojustice lawyers represented Marlene, Melissa and Jonathan before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in a successful effort to uphold a clean-up order. But despite a positive ruling from the Court, the future of the site and plans for remediation remain unclear. With no remedy likely in the near future, Marlene continues to travel to her local church to fill up jugs of water for drinking, while Melissa and Jonathan recently made the difficult decision to declare bankruptcy and leave their home.

Cases like this clearly demonstrate that the status quo is not nearly good enough. We should all be able to turn on the tap and safely drink what comes out of it. A Nova Scotia environmental bill of rights that includes a substantive right to a healthy environment would go a long way to making this a reality.

If Nova Scotia had an environmental bill of rights in place that recognized its residents’ right to live in a healthy environment, Marlene, Melissa and Jonathan would have had additional tools to address their concerns about water contamination. It could have also allowed them to hold polluters to account, or even led to improved regulations that could have prevented contamination from happening in the first place.

In Canada, different communities face different environmental injustices, but a recurring theme emerges: Impacted communities often lack the political and financial power to improve their situation. This is a pattern of systemic injustice which sees socially and economically-marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

Race can also be a factor. Many indigenous communities, including the Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Ontario, have been disproportionately exposed to significant levels of cumulative, toxic pollution. Across the country, First Nations homes are 90 times more likely to be without running water than the homes of other Canadians.

There is also significant historical documentation of environmental injustice in Nova Scotia’s predominantly black communities. Africville was a community on the northern edge of the Halifax peninsula that was home to hundreds of descendants of African slaves. Residents of the tight-knit community fished, planted crops, and worked in the area until Halifax’s industrial boom created a demand for new waste sites. Decades of racist policies resulted in the community being used as a regional dumping ground with no regard for environmental or human health impacts. In the 1960s Africville was declared a slum and demolished.

While governments and industry no longer exhibit the type of overt racism that was seen in the historic example of Africville, the contemporary indifference that allows environmental injustice to continue unabated can only be conquered through significant legal and policy changes. Earlier this year, in response to the injustices faced by Nova Scotian communities like Lincolnville and Pictou Landing, MLA Lenore Zann introduced Bill 111, An Act to Address Environmental Racism, in the Nova Scotia Legislature. It was a first, bold step toward addressing the ugly inequities that still persist today.

Now, we hope to see Nova Scotia take an even bolder step, and introduce an environmental bill of rights that includes a substantive right to a healthy environment. This would do two important things. First, it would improve government transparency and mechanisms for public participation in environmental decision-making. Second, it would give Nova Scotians an enforceable right to live an environment free from unsafe levels of toxic pollution that put their health at risk.

It may also have the effect of adding weight to the national movement seeking broader recognition of the right to a healthy environment in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Environmental rights are human rights — necessary for life, health, and human dignity. It’s time for our laws to reflect those values.

This article also appeared in the September 5 edition of The Chronicle Herald.  Kaitlyn and Lisa share a last name, but have no familial relation. Kaitlyn is the national program director at Ecojustice, Canada’s only national environmental law charity. Lisa is the lawyer at East Coast Environmental Law, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening environmental law in Atlantic Canada.

Photo by Vadim Petrov via Shutterstock