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Canada David Suzuki kicks off environmental rights tour in St. John’s

David Suzuki leads entertainers, artists and writers in quest to enshrine clean air and water into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS

David Suzuki says it's likely his last major campaign and it won't be another bullhorn protest but a much higher goal: to enshrine clean air and water in the Charter of Rights.

Canada's famed environmental activist, now 78, can hear the blowback already.

"People say: 'That's crazy. You want to try to get a change in our Constitution?' Well, the Constitution wasn't born perfect," Mr. Suzuki said in an interview.

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It wasn't so long ago that women could not vote and homosexuality was illegal, he added.

"Things change, and our legal systems reflect the changes that are possible as we begin to guarantee protections and rights.

"I think the right to a healthy environment is long overdue as something that we've got to enshrine in our legal framework."

Mr. Suzuki has fought the gamut of environmental battles, from hydro dams to mining to oil tankers along the B.C. coast. He stressed that constitutional change is "a long-term goal" that would ideally build up from municipal regulations to provincial statutes and ultimately to Ottawa.

"I'm really done with fighting," he said. "I want to come together with people and say: 'What do we agree on?' "When you look at the world in that way – from the standpoint of: 'What are our most fundamental needs?' – then it just seems crazy that we use air, water and land as a garbage can to dump our most toxic chemicals."

Mr. Suzuki will launch this latest and perhaps last quest Wednesday in St. John's, N.L., as part of his cross-country Blue Dot Tour. It will make 20 stops before winding up Nov. 9 in Vancouver.

The tour will combine Mr. Suzuki's speaking events with a varying lineup of entertainers, artists and writers including Neil Young, Feist, Margaret Atwood, Bruce Cockburn, Jim Cuddy and Robert Bateman.

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He hopes it will get people talking about why other countries formally recognize the right to a healthy environment, but not Canada.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq sidestepped Suzuki's constitutional ambitions when asked about the tour. Instead, Shane Buckingham spoke in an e-mailed response about federal expansion of protected areas under the National Conservation Plan along with efforts to cut emissions and ensure "stringent" air-quality standards.

"We have also made significant investments to improve water quality, clean up contaminated sites and protect aquatic life in lakes and rivers across the country."

Mr. Suzuki and his supporters believe much more can and must be done.

Changing the Constitution, however, is no small feat. The so-called seven-plus-50 general amendment formula requires that both the House of Commons and Senate approve along with two-thirds or more of the provinces, representing at least 50 per cent of the national population.

Enshrining a new right to environmental protections would likely raise myriad questions about industrial development and how natural resources are governed, said lawyer Cheryl Milne, a constitutional specialist at the University of Toronto.

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"Although it is a laudable goal, there needs to be a lot of work done before the political will would be there, I would think."

Joe Castrilli, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, agreed.

"You definitely need political will," he said. "And you probably need a philosopher king as prime minister.

"I don't think we have that right now."

Still, he's glad to see the notion of protected environmental rights resurrected. It was a major issue for the association as the Charter of Rights was drafted before becoming law in 1982, Mr. Castrilli said.

Such provisions ultimately weren't included. But other countries, such as France, have since recognized not just environmental rights but procedural protections to help ensure related cases aren't blocked before they're heard, Mr. Castrilli said.

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"Internationally, governments have now begun to think about the need to incorporate environmental concerns into their constitutional framework. Canada's simply behind and should catch up."

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