B.C. municipal politicians call for environmental bill of rights

VANCOUVER — Municipal leaders will press the provincial government to enact a new environmental bill of rights to protect B.C.’s clean air, land and water, but not everybody across the province is happy about it.

Delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver were narrowly split over the proposal, which was pitched by Richmond Coun. Harold Steves as “an idea whose time has come.”

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“We’ve seen forest fires burning from California to the Okanagan. We were breathing polluted air and didn’t even see the sun some days,” Steves told delegates before the vote.

“There should be a major role by our provincial government to ensure we have clean air, clean water and clean food.”

The resolution calls on the UBCM to ask the province to enact legislation for an environmental bill of rights, suggesting municipalities and regional districts share a “deep concern for the welfare of the environment and understand that a healthy environment is inextricably linked to the health of individuals, families, future generations and communities.”

The proposed bill of rights, the resolution stated, would recognize the right of every resident to live in a healthy environment; allow public participation in decision-making respecting the environment and access to environmental information; provide access to justice when environmental rights are infringed; and offer whistleblower protection.

Similar motions were also proposed at the UBCM by Victoria, Ladysmith, Port Moody and Saanich, which called for a “declaration of the right to a healthy environment.”

The David Suzuki Foundation backed the resolutions proposed by Saanich and North Saanich, while Steves said Richmond received support from across Canada for the motion to “get B.C. on track to a clean and healthy environment.”

Sonia Furstenau, an area director for Shawnigan Lake, urged delegates to support the proposal, saying her community unsuccessfully lobbied for three years to prevent a quarry operator from setting up in town, fearing it would contaminate the area’s water.

“We expected the government to listen and protect our community and water from this senseless and unnecessary risk,” Furstenau said. “[This] is a major step in ensuring that what happened in Shawnigan Lake does not happen in your communities.”

Those opposed to the motion, however, argued the provincial government already has individual legislation in place for clean air and water and the move would not stop forest fires from occurring. Others argued it would just hinder B.C.’s resource industries.

Esquimalt Coun. Beth Burton-Krahn, a councillor warned the move would “open up a new generation of lawyers who are going to make a killing.”

But supporters argued the proposed bill would set the stage for the future by consolidating the province’s environmental legislation under one umbrella, while preserving the environment for future generations.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps cited an 11-year-old boy who wished that every kid could live without having to worry about climate change.

Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz argued B.C. should practise what it preaches. “People believe B.C. is the greenest province,” Gaetz said. “We have to show them we live what they believe.”

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