Environmental rights

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• The idea of a right to a healthy environment is getting traction at Canada’s highest political levels. Federal Opposition MP Linda Duncan recently introduced “An Act to Establish a Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights” in Parliament. If it’s passed, our federal government will have a legal duty to protect Canadians’ right to live in a healthy environment.

[I travelled] across Canada with the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot Tour to encourage people to work for recognition of such a right – locally, regionally and nationally. At the local level, the idea of recognizing citizens’ right to live in a healthy environment is already taking hold. Richmond, Vancouver, The Pas, Manitoba, and the Montreal borough of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie all recently passed municipal declarations recognizing this basic right.

Our ultimate goal is to have the right to a healthy environment recognized in the Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a federal environmental bill of rights is a logical precursor. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms itself was preceded by a federal statute, the Bill of Rights, enacted under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government in 1960… An earlier attempt to pass a Canadian environmental bill of rights (also led by Linda Duncan) gained the support of MPs from various parties before its passage through Parliament was interrupted by the 2011 federal election…

I’ve seen so many positive changes in our legal systems and social safety net in my 78 years – including adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. My family was incarcerated in the BC Interior during the Second World War just for being of Japanese descent, even though we were born and raised in Canada. Like other people of colour, my parents didn’t have the right to vote until 1948. First Nations people on reserves couldn’t vote until 1960. And women weren’t even considered “persons” under Canadian law until 1918 when they were given voting rights. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison until 1969! I’m convinced that legal recognition for environmental rights will be the next big change…

We can’t live and be well without clean air and water, nutritious food and the numerous services that diverse and vibrant natural environments provide. Even in Canada where our spectacular nature and abundant water are sources of pride, we can no longer take these necessities for granted. More than 1,000 drinking-water advisories are in effect in Canada at any time, many of them in First Nations communities. More than half of us live in areas where air quality reaches dangerous levels of toxicity. And from Grassy Narrows and Sarnia’s Chemical Valley in Ontario to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, people are being poisoned because industrial interests and profits are prioritized over their right to live healthy lives… More than half the world’s nations already recognize environmental rights. It’s time for Canada to live up to its values and join this growing global movement.

There’s no date yet for a vote on Bill C-634, but its introduction has started a conversation among politicians in Ottawa. Let’s hope people from across the political spectrum will recognize the importance of ensuring that all Canadians have the right to a healthy environment.

Written with Contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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