Canadian society’s conceptions of basic human rights are constantly evolving. Lawyers and judges conceive of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – which provides constitutional protection of many of our most fundamental human rights – as being a “living tree” for this very reason.
In 1993, when Ontario’s NDP government enacted the Environmental Bill of Rights (“EBR”), human rights law looked much different than it does today. Marriage equality for same sex couples did not yet have widespread public support and had not been recognized by the courts or government. Comprehension of indigenous rights and the need for true reconciliation was still in its infancy.
Though the Canadian track record for recognition and respect for human rights, particularly the rights of indigenous peoples, is still far (far) from perfect, we’ve come a long way since 1993.
When it was first enacted, the EBR set Ontario apart from other provinces by granting a range of procedural rights, such as our right to know about and comment on laws and policies that could impact our environment. It gives individuals a right to request an investigation when an environmental law is violated or where the law should be improved to better protect the environment or human health.
These rights are important and should not be taken for granted.
At Ecojustice, the environmental law charity where I work, I represent community groups and citizens in other provinces without EBRs – from Manitoba to Nova Scotia – and the story is very different. Being kept in the dark about government decisions takes a toll on residents and can lead to outcomes that have little regard for the local environment or community health.
The EBR has remained largely unchanged for more than two decades, and is now undergoing its first review. This is an exciting opportunity for Ontarians to weigh in and ensure the EBR reflects evolutions in human rights and environmental law over the past 23 years. Nearly 20,000 Ontarians have already called on the government do just that.
While many of the procedural rights set out in the EBR should be strengthened and updated, it is particularly critical for an updated EBR to explicitly recognize that all people have the right to a healthy environment.
The right to a healthy environment has gained legal recognition around the world more quickly than any other human right over the past fifty years and is enshrined in the constitutions of more than 100 nations. It recognizes that access to clean air, water, and land is necessary for human life and dignity. Industrialized countries that recognize this right tend to perform better environmentally and economically, have stronger enforcement of environmental laws, and involve citizens more in environmental decision-making.
The Ontario government cannot continue to ignore the dangerous levels of air pollution that it continues to permit in places like Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, where the small First Nations community of Aamjiwnaang is surrounded by 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry.
Enshrining a right to a healthy environment may not have a significant impact on my relatively privileged life in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood, but it could make a big difference for people whose daily realities are much different than my own.
For instance, it would mean the Ontario government cannot continue to ignore the dangerous levels of air pollution that it continues to permit in places like Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, where the small First Nations community of Aamjiwnaang is surrounded by 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry. In Aamjiwnaang, the government has turned a blind eye to the cumulative impacts of concentrated air pollution in the area and how it affects the health of residents.
The situation in Aamjiwnaang also highlights an uncomfortable reality: A lack of environmental rights impacts some of us more than others. Time and time again low-income populations, First Nations communities, and other historically disadvantaged groups in our society are forced to bear more than their fair share of environmental harm while more affluent communities benefit.
Therefore, it is also imperative that an updated EBR include specific language about the concept of environmental justice. This principle holds that environmental burdens and benefits – such as access to public green spaces – should be equitably shared among all members of society.
In other words, the quality of your environment should not be predicated on the colour of your skin, how much money you make, your political connections, or where you live.
Human rights and our understanding of the links between the environment and our health have evolved significantly since 1993. Ontario now has a golden opportunity to live up to our highest ideals about fairness and justice by recognizing our right to a healthy environment in an updated version of the EBR. Let’s not let it pass us by.
Ecojustice and the David Suzuki Foundation are partners in the Blue Dot movement, a national grassroots campaign to advance the legal protection of all Canadians’ right to live in a healthy environment.