Feds protect the right to a healthy environment


More than five years after it was announced that its right to a healthy environment should be respected in its environmental laws, the federal government is working on it.

But it wants two more years to figure out exactly what that means in practice.

The amendment to Canada’s Environmental Protection Act was one of 87 recommendations to the government made in 2017 when the House of Commons environment committee completed its mandatory review of the legislation.

In 2018, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the government would wait until after the 2019 election to introduce legislation and would spend months intervening to advise on the best way to proceed.

It took the government until April 2021 to introduce the change, but that bill died without controversy when the 2021 elections were called in August. An almost identical bill was introduced. back in the Senate in February.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act is colloquially known as CEPA (pronounced SEEPA). It is a law that regulates what chemicals can and cannot be used in Canada, and how potentially hazardous chemicals must be used and disposed of.

It’s the action that is supposed to protect people from things like asbestos, mercury, and lead. That’s what allowed Canada to ban bisphenol A in baby bottles in 2010 and has helped reduce mercury levels in the air and water by more than 60% since 2007.

Most recently, the government added plastic waste to its list of hazardous substances, deeming it a risk to human and animal health, which has allowed Ottawa to ban certain single-use plastics such as pipes. smoking, cutlery and takeout containers.

It must also provide guidance to companies that make different chemicals on how they will be evaluated and approved for use.

The new bill updates how those hazardous substances are assessed, including a search for safer alternatives, data on cumulative effects if combined with other substances, and whether they can cause cancer. long term or not.

The new bill also adds a sentence ensuring that every Canadian has a “right” to a healthy environment and makes the government obligated to protect that right.

“This is the first time this right has been included in federal statute in Canada,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said at the Senate environment committee on Thursday.

But the law says the government will have up to two years after the bill goes into effect to determine how that right will be exercised when implementing the act.

It will guide how the right to a healthy environment, Guilbeault said, will guide how the right to a healthy environment is considered when implementing CEPA, including environmental justice principles, which address unfair exposure to hazardous substances, often of marginalized communities.

But Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson said it was odd to pass legislation if the government didn’t know what the law would actually do.

“Should we not understand this right to Canadians and how to operate it?” he asks. “On the other hand, I believe it is not necessary for us to introduce uncertainty into every CEPA-based process for clarity and certainty.”

Guilbeault said any legislator knows you can’t identify a legal element in a regulation until that element exists.

Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, says more than 100 countries already have a legal right to a healthy environment and identification is not complicated. complex.

“It means that everyone has the right to breathe clean air, they have the right to safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably produced food, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. , a non-toxic environment where people can live, work, learn and play, and a safe environment.”

It also means that people can access information about their environment, participate in the process to make decisions about their environment, and have legal recourse if they feel that right, he said. threatened or violated.

Boyd said the law would be much stronger if it clearly stated what they were entitled to if they felt the government was not upholding their duty to protect their right to a healthy environment.

And he wishes Canada would do what most other countries have done and make it a constitutional right, even though he admits that in itself is a worm poison.

Guilbeault said the government has no intention of opening a possible door for this.

This Canadian Press report was first published on April 28, 2022.

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