Blog: Social Justice Priorities Require Federal Funding and Attention

Blog post by Fiona O’Flynn, Communications Intern

This spring, Canada’s Federal Budget for 2022 will be released. The budget has major implications for environmental social justice issues. Proper funding for suitable solutions is key to meeting challenges posed by the climate crisis. Vulnerable communities also have a lot at stake in this budget. It’s crucial to prioritize their protection in order to advance environmental justice.  

The Green Budget Coalition (GBC) recently released its final budget recommendations for 2022 with input from 23 Canadian environmental groups, including Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). The budget recommendation suggests ways to achieve progress on climate change, biodiversity, and environmental justice. It also outlines environmental social justice issues that urgently need federal funding and attention. Here are some of the social justice priorities that impact CELA’s client communities.

Modernize the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA, is Canada’s cornerstone legislation on human health and the environment. However, the bill has not been meaningfully updated in over 20 years. CEPA needs amendments to address environmental concerns and to protect Canadians rights to environmental health. Bill S-5, an act to amend CEPA, would work to better protect vulnerable populations. These communities are often at higher risk of harm from pollution and toxic substances.

One key proposed amendment to CEPA is the inclusion of the right to a healthy environment. If passed, Canada will join over 150 countries in recognizing this right. The addition will ensure that Canadians have an actionable, remedy-based right to a safe environment.

Establish an Office of Environmental Justice and Equity

Vulnerable and racialized groups face disproportionate harm from environmental hazards like climate change, pollution, exposure to toxic chemicals, and environmental degradation. It’s time to create a high-level Office of Environmental Justice and Equity to address these issues. This office would work to identify areas of disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, develop strategies to mitigate and prevent them, and create plans to improve environmental equity. Environmental inequities will only continue to worsen until they are properly addressed. Creating an office dedicated to working towards environmental justice would be a significant first step. 

The GBC and CELA recommend federal funding to set up this office. This investment would also support a national strategy on environmental racism and environmental justice.

Address Environmental Racism

The establishment of an Office of Environmental Justice and Equity could be reinforced by passing Bill C-226, an Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice. Recently introduced as a private Member’s Bill, it is similar to Bill C-230, the National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act, which was brought to parliament last year but died on the order paper last fall.

If passed, it would require the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to develop and report on a strategy to assess and prevent environmental racism and advance environmental justice. It could be landmark legislation in ensuring environmental equity among all Canadians.

Eliminate Funding for New, Unproven Nuclear Reactors

A new form of energy technology is being touted as being the ‘solution’ to climate change. Known as small modular reactors (SMRs), this proposed nuclear technology is intended for use in remote, off-grid communities to replace diesel reliance and to power resource extraction projects. There is no one accepted definition of an SMR, however, the term generally refers to a more compact nuclear reactor designed to produce 1 – 300 MW of electricity/heat.

SMRs, like conventional nuclear technology, pose safety, accident, and proliferation risks. There is also strong opposition to what could be Canada’s first SMR, proposed for Chalk River, Ontario, from the Algonquin Nation community of Kebaowek First Nation who oppose nuclear developments on their unceded and traditional lands.

CELA supports the GBC’s recommendation to eliminate federal funding for SMRs, and instead reallocate those investments into cost-effective, socially responsible, renewable solutions. 

Continue Support for Great Lakes Funding

The federal government has pledged to invest $1 billion in freshwater investments over the next ten years. As home to more than 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, the Great Lakes need a significant portion of this funding.  

CELA recently submitted a letter, co-authored with  Environmental Defence strongly encouraging the Federal Government to prioritize continued investment in the Great Lakes Program beyond 2022. The federal Great Lakes Program is one way the government addresses its commitments under the Canada-US Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which commits the governments of Canada and the US to protect the Great Lakes and ensure they are a source of safe, high-quality drinking water, are safe for swimming and recreational use, are unrestricted by environmental quality concerns, and to allow for safe consumption of fish and wildlife unrestricted by concerns due to harmful pollutants.

National Energy Poverty Strategy

More than 2.8 million Canadian households, or nearly 1 in 5, spend a disproportionate amount of money on their home energy costs. These households are also more likely to experience other socio-economic vulnerabilities. CELA encourages the federal government to provide funding for energy efficiency for low-income households in the 2022 federal budget. 

Climate Change and Vulnerable Communities

Vulnerable communities often face more adverse effects from climate change than the general population; research has clearly shown that they are disproportionately exposed to higher pollution levels, or legacies of pollution. Under current Canadian law, low-income neighbourhoods receive poor protection from these impacts. 

One example of these impacts is from heat-related deaths caused by climate change. Currently, provinces like Ontario define heat-related deaths as accidental deaths which are directly and immediately associated with heat. However, this definition excludes situations in which extreme heat exacerbates pre-existing conditions, resulting in premature death. Without accurate data and tracking of these cases, it’s near impossible to identify which populations are suffering, and to take life-saving measures in effective resource deployment and policy drafting. As record-breaking heat events become more common, it’s crucial that we accurately track these instances to protect vulnerable populations. 

At CELA, we’re continuing to work toward an environmentally equitable future for all Canadians. We strongly urge the Canadian government fund and support the issues highlighted in this article in the 2022 federal budget.