You do not have the right to a healthy environment…
There, I said it. Neither Nova Scotia nor Canada at large has ever formally recognized your right to clean air, clean water, clean soil, or any of the other bodily necessities a “healthy environment” might imply.
Sure, there’s a suite of environmental laws protecting groundwater from industrial contamination, but none of those laws have anything to do with you, a citizen, a tax payer; they do not exist for your benefit. It’s not illegal for a company to spike your groundwater with arsenic or lead, for example; it’s merely illegal to spike groundwater, removing you from the equation altogether.
Our lack of a right to a healthy environment represents an awkward gap between our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our myriad pieces of environmental legislation. These laws treat people as one thing and our environment as another without every considering the links between, an oversight you’ll know to be absurd if you’ve ever tried holding your breath more than a minute. The laws protecting our groundwater, our air and our land are, critically, not human rights, and are therefore not enforced with the same zeal, or to the same degree.
The pitfalls are obvious enough – folks breathe in the residues of nearby biomass operations; entire communities go years without drinkable tap water; groundwater bubbles with methane from hydraulic fracturing and the wilderness which keeps us sane is casually destroyed, all without legal remedies to ensure human health. I’ve written about these things before and you’ve no doubt heard of them, each a glaring weakness in our rights as Canadians. When the messes of industry are in fact cleaned up for our sakes, it tends to be with public money and on a case by case basis, the infrequent remediations of government in election season. Some jurisdictions, however, have done better.
Ontario adopted environmental rights of its own accord back in 1993 and Quebec did so much earlier; even the Yukon and Northwest Territories have taken part in this growing trend, ensuring its citizens access to information, more say in government decision making, advocacy inside relevant government departments and the ability to hold leadership to account, all on matters concerning their air, water and soil. They’re joined by something like 150 other nations which have, in some fashion or another, recognized the right to a healthy environment, yet here we sit in the Maritimes, blissfully unaware of the chinks in our armour.
There have, of course, been heartening efforts to rectify our legal failings. Two years back the East Coast Environmental Law Association released its Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights, a piece of pre-made legislation offered to our provincial government to review and adopt, in whole or in part. In it was outlined our right to a healthy environment and the many means by which those rights may be enforced. When released in April of 2017 there was some initial political interest, but since then our government has failed to follow through.
Federally, a Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights was brought before government in October of 2009, but failed to become law. Then, beginning in 2014, the David Suzuki Foundation and EcoJustice partnered to launch the Blue Dot Campaign, garnering astounding support with music, poetry and talks from coast to coast. I was back stage when their tour hit Halifax, standing next to David Suzuki just ahead of his keynote.
In 2018 the federal Liberals, Greens and NDP each endorsed the idea of environmental rights, but haven’t yet followed through. Then, this past April, MP Linda Duncan of Edmonton-Strathcona introduced a newer version of 2009’s Canadian Environmental Bill or Rights. While it’s thus far survived (and become the subject of a national petition, by the way) success is a long way off.
Our values have evolved quite a bit since 1982’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, extending beyond those great privileges of voting and holding elected office into the realm of clean air, water and soil for all. It’s an overdue milestone, but perhaps for the first time public support is at the proper pitch to make change of this scale possible. Momentum has been building, and weather or not our elected leaders decide to recognize our right to a healthy environment, we as Canadians and as Nova Scotian absolutely must. We must stand beside those who suffer in its absence and raise our voices when outcomes wreak of injustice. Where the people lead, the law must follow.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.
Shown above is Lisa Mitchell, executive director of the East Coast Environmental Law Association, unveiling the Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights in April of 2017. (Photo Courtesy of the East Coast Environmental Law Association)