Right to a healthy environment to be defined after becoming law, Ottawa says – National | The Canadian News

More than five years after being told it must enshrine the right to a healthy environment in its environmental protection act, the federal government is moving to do so.

But it wants another two years to pass to find out exactly what it will mean in practice.

The amendment to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act is one of 87 recommendations that the House of Commons environment committee made to the government in 2017, when it concluded a mandatory review of the law.

In 2018, then-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the government was going to wait until after the 2019 election to table the legislation and would spend the intervening months consulting on how best to proceed.

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It took the government until April 2021 to introduce the change, but that bill died without debate when the 2021 election was called in August. A nearly identical bill was reintroduced in the Senate in February.

Canada’s Environmental Protection Act is colloquially known as CEPA (pronounced SEEPA). It is the legislation that sets out what chemicals can and cannot be used in Canada, and how those that may be toxic must be used and disposed of.

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

More recently, the government added plastic waste to the list of toxic substances, arguing that it poses a risk to human and animal health, which is allowing Ottawa to ban certain types of single-use plastics such as straws, cutlery and take-out food containers.

It is also supposed to provide guidance to companies that manufacture various chemicals on how they will be evaluated and approved for use.

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The new bill updates the way these toxic substances are assessed, including a requirement to look for safer alternatives, data on cumulative effects if combined with other substances and whether they can cause cancer in the long term.

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The new bill also adds language guaranteeing that all Canadians have a “right” to a healthy environment and makes it a duty of the government to protect that right.

“This is the first time this right has been included in a federal law in Canada,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told the Senate Environment Committee on Thursday.

But the legislation says the government will have up to two years after the bill comes into force to define how that right will be applied in enforcing the law.

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Guilbeault said that will guide how the right to a healthy environment will be considered when CEPA is applied, including the principle of environmental justice, which addresses unfair exposure to harmful substances, often by marginalized communities.

But Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson says it’s strange to pass a law if the government itself doesn’t know what it will actually do.

“Shouldn’t we understand what this right would confer on Canadians and how to implement it?” he asked. “Otherwise, I think we are unnecessarily injecting uncertainty into all the processes that depend on CEPA for clarity and certainty.”

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

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

“It means that people have the right to breathe clean air, they have the right to a safe and sufficient supply of water, to healthy and sustainably produced food, to healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and to non-toxic environments where people can live, work, study and play, and to a safe climate.”

He said it should also mean 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 is threatened or violated.

Boyd said the law would be much stronger if it spelled out what recourse they have if they believe the government is not fulfilling its duty to protect their right to a healthy environment.

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And he wants Canada to do what most countries have done and make it a constitutional right, although he recognizes that that in itself is a can of toxic worms.

Guilbeault said the government has no intention of opening that can for this.

2022 The Canadian Press


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