Advancing Environmental Rights & Equity – Reflections on World Environment Day

On the eve of World Environment Day (June 5), we are reflecting on the state of environmental justice in Canada. There are a number of critical pieces of legislation on the federal order paper right now, and CELA is concerned they may stall or be lost entirely when Parliament pauses for summer break in a few weeks.

First and foremost, Bill C-230, an Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism, is in committee after second reading. This bill is a recognition of environmental racism in Canada and provides the mechanism to create a national strategy that addresses that racism.

While CELA has some concerns about the bill – overall it lacks teeth, and we’d like to see the timelines shortened, the addition of definitions of key terms, and the inclusion of quantitative benchmarks – this is a critical first step for Canada, as we lag behind many other countries on this issue.  Collecting race-based data, for example, will allow us to have a much better picture of how vulnerable communities are impacted by harmful emissions from factories.

Also in play right now is Bill C-28, an Act to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).  CEPA provides the legislative framework for protecting human health and the environment from toxic substances. CELA has long advocated for strengthening CEPA, including through the recognition of a right to a healthy environment, and remedies to effectuate that right.

The climate emergency, global plastic pollution and a respiratory illness pandemic and rising rates of chronic illnesses like cancers make strengthening CEPA an even more urgent priority, to protect the environment and the health of all people in Canada — particularly those who are marginalized or otherwise are known to experience greater vulnerability, including many Indigenous communities, certain workers, racialized communities, and children, including during fetal development.

Other reforms to CEPA that are long overdue and that should be considered in amending Bill C28 include: (1) shifting the burden of proof to industries to demonstrate that their products are safe for humans and the environment, that there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to their use, and that where there are such alternatives that they be substituted for less safe products; (2) robust evaluation of, and protection from, endocrine disrupting substances; (3) protection of vulnerable populations from the effects of toxic substances; (4) establishing enforceable national ambient air quality standards; and (5) removing barriers to enforcement of the Act by individual members of the public.

Lastly, Bill C-12, an Act respecting transparency and accountability in Canada’s efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050, was introduced in late 2020 and is currently at Standing Committee. This is a crucial phase of the legislative process where the Bill can be strengthened into the rigorous climate law Canada needs.  Our partners are calling for amendments to strengthen the Bill, including early and ambitious climate action, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, and real accountability.

As the summer recess approaches, CELA is pleased to see parliamentary attention on these issues.  We look for strengthening of the bills before they are passed, and for sustained attention and resources needed to advance environmental rights and equity.