Canada needs to take another look at charter

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Wendy Elliott column

People stories grab me. The personal tale has impact. So it was when David Boyd came to speak at Acadia University recently. He was launching his new book, A Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada's Constitution, but it was his stories that captured the interest of a capacity crowd in Wolfville.

Boyd told the story of Beatriz Mendoza, a health care worker who was living in a poor and heavily polluted area of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she lost feeling in her fingers and toes due to neurotoxin by-products from petro-chemical pollution back in 2004, “she filed a law suit against the federal government, provincial government, municipal government and 44 corporations.”

Mendoza asserted her right to a healthy environment. Four years later, the Supreme Court in Argentina issued a ruling ordering closure of all illegal dumps, drinking water improvement, sewage treatment and the development of a regional environmental health plan.

“That was four years ago, and they have made unbelievable progress,” said Boyd. “They've built three water treatment plants, built or upgraded 11 sewage treatment plants, they've cleaned up and closed down over 100 illegal dumps in the watershed, shut down 484 industrial facilitates that were polluting the river … they've increased the number of environmental enforcement officials in that watershed from three in 2008 to 250 today.”

Boyd’s second darker story was about the fate of the First Nations people who live in a deadly chemical zone in Sarnia, Ontario, where there are 60 major industries. They have no right to a healthy environment.

Most of us would be surprised to learn that none of us have the right to a healthy environment. Boyd, one of Canada's leading environmental lawyers, thinks we should know this fact. Ninety per cent of Canadians believe the government should recognize such a right, the David Suzuki Foundation reports, and over half of Canadians believe the government already has. 

Canada is one of only 16 of the 193 UN member states that doesn’t recognize the right to a healthy environment through its constitution, environmental legislation, court decisions or ratification of an international agreement.  

“Our charter, which Canadians think is such a great document, is really out of date,” said Boyd. “And there's a whole bunch of basic human rights that Canadians don't have.”

He suggested that constitutional rights could help many others.

“There's people working on fracking, there's people working on aquaculture, there's people working on forestry issues, urban issues,” he said.

“It will increase their ability to get information about the issues they're working on. It will increase their ability to participate in decisions on those issues, and ultimately, it will increase their access to justice so they can, if necessary, take governments to court to hold them accountable for their actions.”

According to Boyd, the experience in the 95 countries around the world that have the constitutional right to a healthy environment is that enforcement increases dramatically.

“It increases dramatically because government has a responsibility based on the constitution which is the highest law. It also increases because people, individual citizens, and environmental groups have new found legal rights to enforce those laws themselves if the government fails to do so.”   

Even with a different federal government, Boyd thinks that corporate Canada is bound to rise up and resist.

“It's going to be up to us to make sure the governments we elect do what we want them to do and not what corporate Canada wants them to do."

Boyd says we can look to indigenous communities for leadership and gain inspiration from historical figures like Nellie McClung, who launched the Persons’ Case that won Canadian women the vote.

He also said that Nova Scotia ought to establish an Environmental Bill of Rights similar to Ontario’s 1993 legislation. The constitutional right to a healthy environment, Boyd suggested, could empower citizens, hold government and industry accountable, and improve Canada's green record.

His book is timely, as this marks the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights, which Boyd calls “narrow and outdated,” unlike South America, where such rights are strong.

An adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, he has advised Scandinavian governments and what he learned there prompts him to state that environmental rights don’t dampen economical growth, in fact they help foster ingenuity.

In other words, we need to be more like Latin America and Sweden and stop hiding our heads in the sand.

Organizations: Acadia University, Supreme Court, First Nations David Suzuki Foundation UN Charter Simon Fraser University

Geographic location: Canada, Wolfville, Buenos Aires Ontario Argentina Sarnia Nova Scotia South America Latin America Sweden

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  • JPierre
    December 08, 2012 - 14:45

    I strongly agree with this concept of Environmental Bill of Rights integrated in the constitution. That "...over half of Canadians believe the government already has..." such protection for us just goes to show how many of us are really ignorant of what is happening, especially with the recent deep erosions to standards through omnibus bills C-38 and C-45. Only those who are 'invested' in rapacious exploitation and the ignorant would be disregarding the impacts on the Canadian quality of life from these bills. It is essential that government and corporations be held accountable for all erosion to health standards. End corporate control of public resources.