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The Constitution is silent on safeguarding our air, water and food, which are the very elements of our survival. (Thinkstock)
The Constitution is silent on safeguarding our air, water and food, which are the very elements of our survival. (Thinkstock)

Devon Page and Peter Robinson

Every Canadian's eco-rights need Charter protection Add to ...

Every Canadian should have the right to clean air, water, food and land. In fact, most of us think we do.

We don’t.

Canadians enjoy freedom of expression, equal protection from discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This makes the Charter, which turns 30 this week, one of Canada’s most powerful laws for protecting our human rights and collective quality of life. But the Constitution is silent on safeguarding our air, water and food, which are the very elements of our survival.

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In an era of global warming and mass industrial pollution, this means Canadians’ rights – which are supposed to be guaranteed by the Charter – are increasingly threatened without recognition of our right to a healthy environment.

Many nations are grappling with the challenge. Canada stands in stark contrast to more than 140 countries that have added environmental protections to their constitutions. Ninety of these, including Norway and France, now explicitly recognize the right to a healthy environment. The result? These nations rank higher than others on environmental performance, leave smaller ecological footprints and have reduced toxic emissions that impact the health of their citizens.

For example, a million Argentines living near the Riachuelo-Matanza, one of South America’s most polluted rivers, now have access to clean drinking water after citizens used their right to a healthy environment to sue laggard governments and polluting industries. Some companies have shut down their operations; the government has committed to monitoring water, air and soil quality.

With our abundant wilderness and fresh water, it’s easy for Canadians to assume that we all have access to the things we need to survive. But in 2000, seven people died in Walkerton, Ont., after drinking water tainted by E. coli. Twelve years later, the federal government has yet to develop national water standards that would ensure access to clean drinking water for all Canadians. That’s a problem for first nations such as Attawapiskat – and hundreds of other small and rural communities where government advisories warn residents to boil their water before drinking it.

Last fall, the World Health Organization found that the people of Sarnia, Ont., breathe the most polluted air in Canada. Sarnia is home to Chemical Valley, a place where a petrochemical company spews toxic pollutants across the street from where children play basketball. It’s also home to Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge. Ron and Ada are suing the Ontario government for failing to consider the effects on their health before approving more pollution in their community.

Recognizing every Canadian’s right to a healthy environment in the Charter would do several things to help protect us from these kinds of problems, according to David Boyd, one of Canada’s leading experts on environmental rights. It would oblige our governments to respect this right by creating and enforcing stronger environmental laws. A constitutional right that applies to all Canadians equally and is enforceable by the courts also holds decision-makers accountable at the highest level for protecting human health and the environment. This new right would dovetail with other Charter rights that promote a democratic society by empowering citizens and civil society to participate in decisions that affect our shared resources.

Our country and its abundant natural resources are like a village well. Government, industry, individuals and communities all draw from it. If pollutants poison the well and make one of us sick, we’re all at risk.

In 2001, the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion about the bond between health and the environment. After upholding a municipality’s right to restrict the use of harmful pesticides in Hudson, Que., the court said, “Our common future, and that of every Canadian community, depends on a healthy environment.”

Devon Page is executive director of Ecojustice. Peter Robinson is CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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