Photo: Let's stand up for our right to a healthy environment

It's time to address Canada's dismal and worsening environmental record. If all of us work together, we can make it happen. (Credit: MSVG via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Public health worker Beatriz Mendoza was living near the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she started losing feeling in her fingers and toes. Her neighbours were also experiencing health issues — including skin rashes, cancers and birth defects — clearly linked to pollution in the heavily industrialized area. The Matanza-Riachuelo basin is one of the most contaminated waterways in Latin America.

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In 2004, Mendoza and other residents sued the national, provincial and municipal governments and 44 corporations. And they won. Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd describes the case in his book, The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada's Constitution. He writes that the lawsuit led Argentina's government to establish a new river basin authority and put in place clean-up, restoration and regional environmental health plans.

The government has since increased the number of environmental inspectors in the region from three to 250, and created 139 sampling points for monitoring water, air and soil quality. Three new water treatment plants have been built, providing clean water to millions of people; 11 sewage-treatment plants have been built or expanded, also serving millions; 169 garbage dumps have been closed; and 484 polluting industrial facilities have been shut down.

As Boyd points out, this was possible because Argentina's constitution recognizes "the right to a healthy environment and the citizens' power to defend their rights through the judicial system." It's a right that people in more than 100 countries worldwide enjoy. Canadians are not among them.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives us freedom of expression, equal protection from discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. But one fundamental right is notably absent — to live in an environment conducive to health and well-being, with clean air, water and soil and biological diversity. As Boyd writes, "In a country where Nature is an integral element of our national identity, and in an era where scientific evidence establishes our basic dependence on a healthy environment, it is striking that our constitution makes no reference to it."

Along with David Boyd and Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation is working to change that. Boyd's book helped launch the initiative, and the Foundation is hosting a telephone town hall with him on Sunday, February 3, from 4 to 5 p.m. Pacific Time (7 to 8 Eastern). It's free, but space is limited. You can register until January 27.

Boyd makes a convincing case for the necessity of such constitutional protection. He points to evidence from more than 100 nations demonstrating that, "constitutional entrenchment of environmental rights and responsibilities contributes to stronger laws, increased enforcement, an enhanced role for citizens, and improved environmental performance."

Although the idea of a constitutional right to a healthy environment is gaining support, it does have its detractors, including some government and industry insiders in Canada. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers argues such a law would harm our economy, and some government representatives claim it would hinder tar sands and other industrial development. Boyd doesn't buy it. He notes that constitutional rights must be balanced against competing rights. For example, free speech comes with restrictions against pornography, hate literature, false advertising and so on.

Evidence from countries with environmental rights, such as Norway, also shows the shakiness of the economic argument. "Rather than trumping economic activity," Boyd writes, "the right to a healthy environment would compel, or at least increase the likelihood of, sustainable development."

And, even though there is still much to be done in Argentina's Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin, people there are already enjoying significantly improved living conditions, including a stronger local economy.

Getting the right to a healthy environment enshrined in Canada's Constitution won't be easy. We're headed in the opposite direction, with environmental protections and laws being rolled back or gutted, mostly in the name of keeping us tied to a resource-extraction economy. And despite our country's abundant water, many people, especially in First Nations communities, don't have access to clean drinking water.

It's time to address Canada's dismal and worsening environmental record. If all of us — "Canadians of all ages, all backgrounds, all provinces and territories, and all political persuasions" — work together, we can make it happen.

January 17, 2013

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Feb 18, 2013
2:41 PM

All of the concerns I receive relating to an unheathy environment are related to wood burning. There are particular concerns in Montreal and B.C. A “healthy environment” is too vague and there is a need to be more specific. The Air Quality Health Index is so basic and the methods so inadequate that politicians will point out that the air is clean and we already have ahealthy environment. In fact the WHO confirmed this (based on data provided by Canada) Alan

Feb 10, 2013
10:12 AM

Having a Town Hall meeting is a great idea, however ALL of the e-mails I receive relate to residential wood burning and this topic was not raised and I guess I was too far down the list to have a chance to speak. The future looks grim for all urban residents if no action is taken to protect us and the support of the Suzuki Foundation would help. Alberta Director Canadian Clean Air Alliance

Feb 10, 2013
2:19 AM

Does anyone have up to date info on Kimberley,Australia? DDT still used routinely in houses

Jan 19, 2013
11:11 AM

It does not have to be always about the money. I am sure if politicians’ families were put on the endangered species list they would move. Sellouts is all they are.

Jan 18, 2013
1:01 PM

Agreed — what letters do we write? To whom do we speak?

Jan 18, 2013
12:54 PM

I am surprised to hear our constitution makes no reference to the right to a healthy environment. Boyd could not have said it better “In a country where Nature is an integral element of our national identity, and in an era where scientific evidence establishes our basic dependence on a healthy environment, it is striking that our constitution makes no reference to it.”

Jan 18, 2013
12:07 PM

Excellent idea to incorporate ‘the right to a healthy environment’ into Canada’s constitution. And a telephone town hall on the topic is a good idea. But do you really want to hold it during the Super Bowl? Even some environmentalists enjoy that event. :-)

Jan 18, 2013
10:05 AM

“Getting the right to a healthy environment enshrined in our constitution won’t be easy” is an understatement given the mood of the polity today.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Boyd’s conclusion that a right to a healthy environment is conducive to sustainable development.

Short of achieving constitutional change we can also argue successfully that many governments, Canada included, appear to support a mainstream (neo liberal) economic theory that actually encourages the type of thinking that leads to gutting prudent environmental legislation. This same theory also defends unemployment and poverty as inevitable and acceptable consequences.

I recently read the December 31, 2012 article written by economist Bill Mitchell and posted on his personal blog. The article was an eye opener for me in that at least one viable economic theory (Modern Monetary Theory) actually does support the idea that guaranteeing full employment while protecting a healthy environment are achievable and sustainable goals. I was left wondering what are our leaders thinking when such alternatives are not being given their full and undivided attention?

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