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Trevor Hancock: The right to a healthy environment is a vital election issue

Last week, I noted that none of the main ­parties — those likely to form the next government — have yet recognized and accepted the scale of the global ecological crises we face, to which Canada contributes disproportionately.
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Thick smoke from wildfires blankets the Vernon area in August. Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize that people have the right to a healthy environment — and that we have a duty to protect nature and ensure the environment is healthy, writes Trevor Hancock. Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press

Last week, I noted that none of the main ­parties — those likely to form the next government — have yet recognized and accepted the scale of the global ecological crises we face, to which Canada contributes disproportionately. Nor have they ­recognized the implications for Canadians and the rest of humanity, including the threat these ­crises pose to our human rights.

David Boyd, a B.C.-based ­environmental lawyer and currently the UN Special ­Rapporteur on human rights and the ­environment, noted in a recent blog posting: “Among the human rights being threatened and violated by the global environmental crisis are the rights to life, health, food, a healthy environment, water, an adequate standard of living, and culture.” Which is why he is a leader in the efforts to ­establish the right to a healthy environment in ­Canadian and international law.

Regrettably, Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that does not ­recognize that people have the right to a healthy environment — and that we also thus have a duty to protect nature and ensure the environment is healthy.

Admittedly, in April 2021, the ­Liberal ­government introduced Bill C-28, which would have amended the Canadian ­Environmental Protection Act to include the recognition of the right to a healthy ­environment. But the bill, while welcomed as a good start by important health and ­environmental organizations, was also ­criticized by them as too weak.

Problematically, the right to a healthy environment would only be in the ­preamble to the act, with no clear legal powers to ensure it is fully implemented. Even worse, the bill stated that this right “may be ­balanced with relevant factors, ­including social, economic, health and scientific ­factors.” In other words — well, you sort of have that right, but not if economic or other factors are considered more important. Thus making money could triumph over your need for a healthy environment — as it has done for many years.

Anyway, Bill C-28 failed to proceed beyond first reading and was not even debated, indicating how little importance Parliament gives to this vitally important issue.

So one question to ask your candidates is: Do you and your party recognize that ­Canadians have a right to a healthy ­environment, that this right is not subject to modification for economic or other reasons, and that you will commit to introducing and/or supporting legislation to enshrine the right to a healthy environment and, ­ultimately, to include it in the Canadian ­Constitution?

Another way in which Canada’s lack of interest in and support for the right to a healthy environment manifests is that ­Canada did not support a March 2021 ­statement put forward at the UN Human Rights ­Council calling for “international ­recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

The statement was proposed by the governments of Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland and ­supported by almost 70 countries. Canada was not alone in failing to support it; other unsupportive major planet-harming ­countries were the U.S., the U.K., Australia, China, Russia and India.

The statement was, however, supported by 15 major UN organizations, from the International Labour Organization to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, all of whom recognized that the “rights of present and future generations depend on a healthy environment.” It was also supported by more than 1,000 civil-society, child, youth and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations.

Happily, there is a growing global ­movement not only to recognize the right to a healthy environment, but to create a Global Pact for the ­Environment. The pact, which the UN has been ­considering, would be a legally binding global ­instrument ­establishing “the right to a sound ­environment and the duty to care for the environment.” But ultimately, Boyd ­suggests, “the right should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

So a second important — indeed vital — question you should ask your federal candidates is whether they will support the adoption, globally, of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and its addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they and their party are seriously concerned about the wellbeing of this and future generations, they must answer “yes.”

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of ­Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.