Hearings begin today on Bill S-5, five years after a parliamentary review recommended strengthening CEPA
OTTAWA | TRADITIONAL, UNCEDED TERRITORY OF THE ALGONQUIN ANISHNAABEG PEOPLE – Environmental and health groups are urging senators to strengthen Bill S-5 in order to modernize the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) without delay. The Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources will begin its study of the bill today, with the minister of environment and climate change scheduled to appear as the first witness.
Bill S-5 proposes to recognize, for the first time in federal law, the human right to a healthy environment, and makes important updates to the legislative framework for regulating toxic substances.
More than a year ago, the same bill was introduced in the House of Commons, as Bill C-28, but was never debated and died on the order paper when Parliament dissolved for the 2021 elections.
CEPA is supposed to protect people in Canada from harmful pollution and toxic chemicals, but it has not been significantly updated in over 20 years. In 2017, the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development recommended strengthening CEPA. Consideration of these recommendations has now spanned three sessions of Parliament.
Although Bill S-5 is not a comprehensive update to CEPA — some important issues identified by environmental and health advocates remain to be addressed — the groups say the bill offers a workable starting point for many much-needed improvements to the act. They are recommending amendments to strengthen certain provisions to truly deliver on the government’s promise of an environmental protection law that confronts 21st-century dangers with 21st-century science.
In a joint submission to the Senate committee, Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Breast Cancer Action Quebec and Equiterre recommend:
- Improving the language in the bill to ensure meaningful protection of the right to a healthy environment;
- Clarifying requirements in the new regime to prioritize prohibition of toxic substances of particular concern (including substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction), and closing loopholes that could undermine controls on these substances;
- Requiring assessment of cumulative risks to the environment, as well as to human health to understand real-life exposures;
- Specifying timelines for chemical assessments and risk-management actions to prevent delays, and promotion of “safer substitution” so that banned toxic chemicals are not replaced by equally harmful alternatives;
- A higher bar for confidentiality claims to expand public access to data about environmental and health risks.
The groups hope to see the Senate complete its consideration of S-5 and refer a strengthened bill to the House of Commons before the summer recess.
People in Canada cannot wait any longer for Parliament to bring CEPA into the 21st century and finally join other countries in recognizing the human right to a healthy environment in federal law.
Dr. Elaine MacDonald, Ecojustice Healthy Communities program director, said:
“CEPA reform is urgently needed to protect Canadians – especially the most vulnerable in our society – from dangerous levels of toxic pollution and chemicals. An outdated law means that people in Canada, unlike 156 countries worldwide, do not have the legal right to a healthy environment. Senators and MPs must make CEPA reform a top priority in Parliament and must move quickly to pass a strong and effective law that protects the public from 21st-century threats.”
Cassie Barker, Environmental Defence Toxics senior program manager, said:
“The toxic chemicals found in our air, water, food and products threaten Canadians, and it’s past time to improve the legislation that prevents harm to our health and the environment. We need to heed the science on toxic chemicals, and this legislation needs to be improved so that Indigenous, racialized and low-income communities are no longer the most exposed to these hazards. When we need to act to prevent environmental harms, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or banning plastics, it’s done under this act. The stronger it becomes, the better we can tackle our most pressing pollution problems.”
Lisa Gue, David Suzuki Foundation national policy manager, said:
“Bill S-5 would recognize the human right to a healthy environment for the first time in federal law, a critical paradigm shift that reinforces other overdue updates to CEPA. But the bill includes qualifying language that could severely limit application of this right. We are looking to the Senate to strengthen the environmental rights provisions in S-5 to align with leading jurisdictions and set Canada up for success as we tackle the climate and nature crises.”
Jennifer Beeman, executive director of Quebec Breast Cancer Action, said:
“Canadians and First Nations communities know that we have a serious problem with toxic exposures in Canada. Flame retardants and PFAS in furniture and clothing; BPA in plastics, cash receipts and can linings; phthalates in air fresheners, fabric softeners, perfumes and cosmetics, to name just a few, have all been shown to interfere with biological processes in ways that produce serious harms, including neurological and reproductive disorders and cancers. What citizens don’t understand is why we have all these problems. Our regulatory system for toxic substances has failed us badly, but if this bill is strengthened and passed, the federal government has a real opportunity to protect the environment and the health of citizens. We must absolutely get this reform right.”
Jane McArthur, toxics campaign director at Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), said:
“Today’s environmental health realities must be reflected in legislation to be protective and preventive. For the present and future health of people living and working in Canada, we need meaningful recognition of a human right to a healthy environment, a bill that will close the loopholes on toxic substances and remove barriers to citizens bringing forward concerns about toxic exposures. We need to think for the long-term. Action on CEPA now is action for the future of public health and environmental justice.”
Marc-André Viau, director of government relations at Équiterre, said:
“Stronger environmental laws make for healthier communities; the two are intricately connected. Updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act must be a priority for this session of Parliament to ensure we have the legislative framework in place that can enable an adequate transition to a green economy.”
Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.
Environmental Defence is a leading Canadian environmental advocacy organization that works with government, industry and individuals to defend clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities.
Breast Cancer Action Quebec is a feminist, environmental health organization whose mission is the prevention of breast cancer, with a particular focus on environmental factors linked to the disease. Working in collaboration with a wide range of groups, BCAQ educates on toxics and other health issues and works for a clean environment and communities that support the health of their members.
The David Suzuki Foundation (DavidSuzuki.org | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a leading Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We collaborate with all people in Canada, including First Nations leadership and communities, governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, communications and public engagement, and innovative policy and legal solutions. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future. We envision a day where we all act on the understanding that we are one with nature.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) is a physician-directed non-profit organization working to secure human health by protecting the planet. Since its founding in 1993, CAPE’s work has achieved substantial policy victories in collaboration with many partners in the environmental and health movements. From coast to coast to coast, the organization operates throughout the country with regional committees active in most provinces and all territories.
Équiterre is active in a number of areas relating to the climate crisis and the environment. The organization also weighs in on key issues in which it holds expertise, including sustainable food and agriculture, energy, fossil fuels, reduction at source and sustainable mobility.