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Thursday, 19 June 2014

Do Canadians have the right to a healthy environment?

by David R. Boyd

My recent book The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution (UBC Press 2012) outlines the need for and potential benefits of incorporating environmental rights and responsibilities into our supreme law.

Three things everyone should know about the implications of recognizing the constitutional right to a healthy environment in Canada:

  1. Canada is among the few nations that refuses to recognize its citizens’ right to live in a healthy environment. This right is included in four major regional human rights treaties and is constitutionally protected in over 110 nations.

  2. Constitutional protection of environmental rights results in stronger environmental laws, better enforcement of those laws, and greater public participation in environmental decision-making. Most importantly, countries with these constitutional rights are making faster progress in ensuring cleaner air, safer water, and healthier environments.

  3. Constitutional recognition of environmental rights and responsibilities would help reduce the thousands of premature deaths, millions of preventable illnesses, and billions in unnecessary health care expenses caused by exposure to environmental hazards in Canada annually.

Three myths about amending the constitution to recognize citizens’ right to a healthy environment:

Myth #1: “Canada is an environmental leader.”

The Reality: According to the Conference Board of Canada, we rank 15th out of 17 wealthy industrialized countries on environmental performance, while countries with constitutional environmental rights and responsibilities such as Norway, Sweden and France top the rankings.

Myth #2: “Recognizing environmental rights could cause economic doom.”

The Reality: No evidence supports this claim. Experiences of 100+ countries suggest the opposite—that stronger environmental rules promote innovation and enhance competitiveness. For example, Norway’s Constitution recognizes this right, and Norway outperforms Canada environmentally, economically, and socially.

Myth #3: “Amending Canada’s Constitution is impossible.”

The Reality: Since 1982, the Constitution has been amended 11 times including two amendments of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As well, courts could interpret the existing language of the Charter (e.g. right to life, liberty, and security of the person) to include an implicit right to a healthy environment, as has occurred in at least 20 other countries.

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