The Right to a Healthy Environment – Advocating for Inclusion in CEPA

Blog post by Isobel Mason, Communications Intern and Fe de Leon, Paralegal and Researcher

The right to a healthy environment is crucial – it directly impacts people’s lives as it encompasses health, food, water, sanitation, property, culture, and non-discrimination, among others.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how imperative it is to have environmental rights, as well as how vulnerable communities are most impacted by “unhealthy” environments.

150 countries around the globe currently recognize the right to a healthy environment – Canada is excluded from this list. While some provinces in Canada recognize environmental rights to a limiting degree through environmental statutes, such as regulatory contexts, participation rights, and certain procedural opportunities, a fulsome and clearly articulated substantive right to a healthy environment has not so far been adopted in Canada.

CELA believes strongly in the right to a healthy environment and has a long history of advocating for it – in fact it was one of the original and continuing objects of CELA when we were incorporated.

A right to a healthy environment can be enacted and given effect through a number of legal vehicles and contexts. One of these could be the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada’s primary legislation for dealing with toxic chemicals and national pollution issues. After CEPA’s introduction in 1988, a review process that ended in the overhaul of CEPA in 1999 saw CELA mobilizing and coordinating with hundreds of environmental and social justice groups across Canada to significantly update and improve that core Canadian environmental law.

It has been over 20 years since the 1999 amendments to CEPA, and the most recent parliamentary review process that began in 2016 is the first real opportunity since then to make changes to longstanding issues such as environmental rights, chemicals policy, public engagement and decision making, as well as highlight the protection of vulnerable communities.

Among the key amendments that CELA is advocating for include changes to how people can undertake legal action under CEPA. CELA is proposing a new Section 22 that allows for legal challenges and enforcement mechanisms by the public to be put in place. This proposed section would provide another opportunity to hold the government accountable for decision making.

CELA says that these amendments to CEPA will help Canadians better access the benefits and remedies of the law, and will allow CELA, as a legal clinic, to argue for better regulations under CEPA, and its ongoing implementation to protect the people CELA represents – vulnerable communities including people of low income, Indigenous communities, children, and workers.

These proposed changes to CEPA are vital to create greater protection for all Canadians and CELA is advocating that the government release its proposed amendments to CEPA by the end of the year, in order to honour its commitment to Canadians to finally see through the need for significant improvement to that statute.

To learn more about the importance of environmental rights and the need for changes to CEPA, watch the recently concluded three-part webinar series available on our website.