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Boy to Victoria council: ‘You only get one chance to save the world’

Victoria could become the sixth city in Canada to recognize the right to a healthy environment, if a 10-year-old Fernwood resident gets his way.
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Rupert Yakelashek, 10, and his sister Franny, 7, make posters prior to tonight's city council meeting. He is asking council to adopt a declaration recognizing the right to a healthy environment.

Victoria could become the sixth city in Canada to recognize the right to a healthy environment, if a 10-year-old Fernwood resident gets his way.

Rupert Yakelashek is asking council to adopt the resolution tonight, in hopes of adding momentum to David Suzuki’s movement to do the same at a national level. Rupert, who is home-schooled, said he was stunned to learn that Canada is not one of the more than 110 countries that have declared a healthy environment to be a right.

“I always thought of Canada as a very environmentally friendly place, so I was very shocked when they said we were behind,” Rupert said. “It should be the highest priority of any government or any person in the world. … You only get one chance to save the world and keep it healthy.”

The right to a healthy environment has already been adopted by Richmond, Vancouver, Montreal, Yellowknife and The Pas, Man. The David Suzuki Foundation says that right includes breathing fresh air, drinking clean water, consuming safe food, access to nature, knowing about pollutants released into the local environment and participating in government decisions that will affect the environment.

Recognizing the right shouldn’t mean massive change, since Victoria already has considerable power when it comes to environmental protection, according to Deborah Curran, a University of Victoria environmental law professor. But it would draw together some of those initiatives under one spotlight.

“I think what it does is it shines a light on sort of that suite and package of initiatives that are aimed toward environmental protection,” she said.

In general, B.C. municipalities and regional districts aren’t taking full advantage of the jurisdiction they already have over environmental protection, which is determined by the province, she said.

“Municipalities could do a whole lot more with their powers than they do.”

A green bylaw tool kit, for example, identifies different stages at which local governments can implement environmental protection policies, from regional growth strategies to zoning.

“If you look around the [capital region], we do little bits of that everywhere,” she said, pointing to James Bay’s rain garden, the Dockside Green development in Vic West and Saanich’s urban containment boundary — the oldest in the province — which sets aside land to be protected from most forms of development.

Environmental protection is enforced through bylaws and policies, but declaring the right could set the stage for further protection down the road.

“I guess I’m old enough that I no longer pooh-pooh symbolic acts of stating who we are as a municipality, because, sometimes over the long term, they create a lasting impact,” Curran said.

If an environmentally damaging development was proposed, the right could be used in an argument against it. But Curran said it would likely require other backup.

“I would argue it likely couldn’t be the sole basis, or weakly so, but it could certainly be one of several factors used in shaping or turning down a development,” she said.

Coun. Jeremy Loveday has put forward a notice of motion co-signed by Coun. Ben Isitt and Mayor Lisa Helps. The motion will be considered by council tonight.

“I think it’s time that the city make a strong statement for the environment,” Loveday said.

It’s an opportunity to highlight the environmental protection points in Victoria’s official community plan, before the council sets out its strategic plan for the next four years, he said.

The second part of Loveday’s motion calls on council to bring the resolution to the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities.

Rupert is also a hosting a rally at 6:45 p.m. in front of city hall, before the council meeting. “Kids need to be heard and municipal governments have some of the biggest impacts on people,” he said.

asmart@timescolonist.com