Interview: Will the Canadian government guarantee its citizens the right to a healthy environment?

AYLIN MANDURIC

Juxtaposition sits down with Peter Wood, the BC-based Environmental Rights Campaign Manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, to discuss the BlueDot movement. BlueDot aims to push the Canadian government to recognize the right to a healthy environment for every Canadian. The movement hopes to push for the acceptance of a federal environmental bill of rights, and in the long term, push for the inclusion of the new right in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today, BlueDot is launching its official call for MPs to support a federal bill recognizing the right to a healthy environment, which will be streamed live online at http://bluedot.ca/

Q: Describe the Blue Dot movement. What is the right to a healthy environment and why is it important to have the Canadian Government formally recognize it? How does the proposed change to the Charter reflect Canadian values?

Coming from BC, we’re seeing many new proposals for projects that are coming with threats to the environment and health – in sectors like mining and oil and gas. That’s been a combination of the efforts of the previous federal government, and the government of BC. They’ve set up the perfect storm of deregulation, and gutted a bunch of important environmental legislation.

This really put environmental activists and health advocates on the defensive. We are often asked to be a part of consultation processes with government, often knowing that there is absolutely no obligation for the government or businesses to listen to that consultation. That was very energy intensive for us, and we decided to look for something less reactive and more proactive.

For example,  the Environmental Assessment Act was weakened substantially. . At the current ongoing Canadian Environmental Assessment review, we’ll be pushing for inclusion of the right to a healthy environment, but we still see a pressing need for an overarching piece of legislation.

It’s very energy-intensive to take a reactive stance by engaging in consultations for every piece of legislation that was disassembled by the previous government. How amazing would it be to just assume that we have a built-in right to a healthy environment? We don’t want to keep wasting our time on something that should be evident.

The Trudeau government has a mandate to patch up the Environmental Assessment Act and a mandate to address the health concerns of First Nations under the umbrella of reconciliation, which I think could be one of the most important things to happen under this administration if they take it seriously.

There’s this opportunity to raise the bar as a whole, in a way that provides stability across administrations and delivers on multiple mandates, including environment, health, and reconciliation. There’s a temptation to take a piecemeal approach, fixing problems issue by issue, or reserve by reserve. An overarching commitment would make it the law to improve First Nations living conditions.

The goal is to save energy by changing the rules of the game, and making sure that any gains that are made are lost-lasting and can’t be changed under the next administration. If we were to have another leader that came into power and wanted to gut legislation, if we had this enacted in the Constitution, to reverse it would be unthinkable.

The other appeal of this campaign is that it’s impossible to argue against.  It speaks to the basic values of Canadians: the belief that we have the right to be healthy. Canadians are proud of our universal healthcare, but we don’t have a recognized right to be proactive about our health and protect ourselves from health problems stemming from environmental factors. I see this right as a natural extension of the Canadian social safety net.

I think that as a matter of identity, Canadians want to believe that we’re not going to let anyone slip below a certain level of wellness in society. No matter who you are in Canada, no matter what your income is, you shouldn’t have to worry about these basic elements of a healthy existence.

Q: How would you define the right to a healthy environment?

If you look at other jurisdictions around the world that have the right to a healthy environment, they often differ in terms of the effectiveness of the right, and in terms of how the right is interpreted in practice. This depends on the rule of law in each country. The reason why this right would be so promising in Canada is that we already have a fairly healthy democracy and general rule of law. It would be exciting to see what’s possible with the right to a healthy environment in place.

In other jurisdictions, the right to a healthy environment is often a combination of procedural and substantive rights. . A procedural right is essentially the right to understand what’s going on in your community. So we want to have the right to a transparent process and information about decisions being made, whether that’s a new mine to be built, or a new decision-making process. Another right would be the right to recourse, to seek remedy where there’s an environmental harm.

Another part is the right to be involved in decision making – beyond just the right to information, it’s the right to participate in decision making. Some jurisdictions have put in place a neutral body designed to oversee this. In Ontario, the Environmental Bill of Rights is overseen by the Environmental Commissioner, whose office is supposed to have the ability to critique the government if they’re doing something fishy.

That’s all on the procedural side of things. On the substantive side of things, we like to ask if there are any hard and fast requirements to have a healthy environment. What are the standards below which some action will be triggered?

Q: How would the proposed change to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms be reflected in people’s day-to-day lives? What kinds of impact would this change have for people in urban areas, in rural areas, and in Northern communities?

When we think about who benefits from the social safety net, it’s really the poorest in society who benefit the most directly. Where this right will provide the most benefit is where the people are suffering the most from environmental harms. These are often vulnerable communities. These are often communities that are unable to represent themselves in the courts when they face a new project that will contaminate their air and water. That said, having strong environmental laws benefits everyone.

Q: How did you go about building the push for this right in a way that incorporates all these different people who might benefit from it?

When we kicked off this campaign two years ago, there was really an attempt to make this a Canadian project. First of all, it’s really difficult with any attempt, to do something across all the provinces and territories. We started with a cross-country tour. David Suzuki put on a series of events. High-profile musicians such as Neil Young came out to support it, and we reached many people that way. We gained about 100,000 signatures in support of the right, and many of those supporters became volunteers who decided to take action in their municipality.  

What we did was give them the resources to present the case for this right before their mayor and council. It was a grassroots-activated segment of the population. With their help, we had 143 municipal resolutions passed in support of our issue — and they are not all little towns. In total, they represent over 43% of Canada’s population: over 15 million people are part of those municipalities. So this is huge.

This may have been started by a few environmental groups, but it’s out of our control now, we’re just trying to keep up with the volunteers running with it. We really believe that it’s going to be that population, and the grassroots action that’s going to lead us to be able to get an environmental bill of rights within this administration, and in the long term, constitutional change.

Q: What are municipal resolutions? Are they legally binding in some way?

It’s usually a declaration of support, in principle, of the concept. We have a template, which each town modifies to make their own. Some municipalities have gone on to call upon the federal government to move towards a bill on this. Other municipalities have turned inwards and used it as a hook to push for that solar project they’ve always wanted, or to clean up that river that’s always been an issue.

We’re not doing a cookie cutter style – for each town, it means something different to clean up their act.

It also provides a common thread across these projects. It’s just a nicer feeling, when you’re taking up a challenge, to know that this this something that’s being done across the country. If BlueDot has a role to play, as a network for people to communicate with each other about this, that’s good.

Q: How did you go about building a network of supporting organizations and bringing together those two issues, health and the environment?

The “blue dot”was based on the iconic photo of the Earth from space. We have every reason to learn to live in harmony with our little blue dot, because there’s nothing else. That’s the origin of the logo. It also provides an arm’s length organization that people could get behind. I think it’s resonated with people – we hear from BlueDot movements from across Canada that have taken ownership of the brand. It’s a common thread that people are using to link up to other efforts across Canada.

In terms of more formal partnerships with health organizations, I think there’s more work we have to do there.

Q: What does having diverse partners contribute to the movement?

Our partnerships reflect the broad appeal the campaign has. We love seeing what we call “the unusual suspects,” the non-traditional allies. We know that our campaign will have appeal for environmental groups, but it’s more exciting when we see that reflected in organizations that are really diverse. We don’t have a financial relationship with these, they are just signing on in principle, and with Ecojustice, who is our closest partner, we collaborate extensively on events and they are the legal brains of this movement.

David Boyd, who works with Ecojustice, is one of the originators of the concept behind our movement. He researched all of the constitutions of the world to see how many mentioned the right to a healthy environment. He works with us quite closely, and we meet regularly to pick his brain.

Q: Did he help draft the municipal resolution template?

Yes, he helped draft that template. He’s also helping us draft actual legislation right now. In order for this to pass, the government will have to put their own stamp of approval on it. We want to give them room to make it theirs. But we know, based on best practices internationally, what a good Environmental Bill of Rights would look like, so they won’t be starting from scratch.

Q: What are you drawing from, internationally speaking? In terms of following the international example, where are you drawing from for that? Just other countries’ constitutions, or are there UN resolutions you are drawing from?

It has continually evolved. The first countries whose constitutions reflected the right to a healthy environment were Portugal and Spain, then Norway. We have lots of good examples, both from the South and from countries whose economic context is similar to Canada’s, like OECD countries, that could stand to inform our approach. We would be benefitting from 40 years of history doing this. We are not the first ones to attempt this, so we’ll be able to make improvements on what’s already there.

Q: In terms of winning over the Liberal government, who do you already have on your side?

We’re at the initial stages of converting that municipal support into a federal campaign. How do you turn the support of that vast number of people, 15 million people in those 143 municipalities, into a Federal environmental bill of rights? Based on an event we recently held  in Ottawa, I would say that it was very well-received. We had 45 MPs show up, from across the political spectrum, which is great for a Wednesday evening. We think that people within government have been very receptive to this idea, but we know that it’s a very busy time for this government.

Q: There’s a lot of asks?

There’s a lot of asks. There’s a lot of repairing to do, after the loss of environmental laws over the past 10 years. There’s a lot to be done. Our challenge is how do we get people to think long-term, proactively. We know that we’re going to need to repair a lot of these individual laws, but can we save some space for doing something that is going to be a legacy? Something long-term that will provide the next generation of environmental law.

Q: What have you found to be the most effective, highlighting the health aspect, the environmental aspect, or the reconciliation aspect of the right? What have you been appealing the most to?

There’s definitely some for whom health is of the most concern, and health will resonate the most with them. For others, the environmental angle is something that appeals the most to them, mostly because of the damage that’s been done over the last 10 years.

Again, with First Nations, we see this as being one of many tools that may be necessary to start moving towards reconciliation. There’s going to be many pieces of legislation. If this can prove to be some part of that, fantastic – but we can’t assume that it will.

I think we really do need to start by listening to First Nations. What are their systems of governance? We have a staff person working  on this – working on our relationship with First Nations and Government Relations. We’re hoping that this is just the beginning of the conversation.

Countries like Norway, who have had the right to a healthy environment since 1992, have had way more success in achieving economic benefit from their natural resources than Canada has. It’s clear that you can have stronger environmental regulation and standards without losing money.

Q:  What were some challenges you faced in getting your message to Canadians? Do you have any enemies of the campaign that you’ve had to thwart on your way here?

Oh come on! Everyone loves us! I think that there will always be – because the name David Suzuki is strongly associated with environmentalism

Where I’ve seen a negative reaction, it has come as a kind of knee-jerk response,– that if David Suzuki supports this project, it must mean that they’re trying to stop economic development, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Countries like Norway, who have had the right to a healthy environment since 1992, have had way more success in achieving economic benefit from their natural resources than Canada has. It’s clear that you can have stronger environmental regulation and standards without losing money.

In fact, having good environmental regulation is associated with good governance overall. I’m not surprised at all that the countries that have moved an environmental bill of rights forward are also way better at standing up for themselves in general about the share of benefits that  corporations get from that country.

So this is a bit of a long-winded answer to a very important question about what our detractors say: generally, it’s a knee-jerk response to say that this will shut down the economy. I really think that people will see through that. People know that we can expect to have a decent environment and an economy. Don’t force us to choose! It’s a false dichotomy.

Q: Has anything like this been done in the past?

There have been about 12 amendments to the Charter, and that makes us hopeful. If people have done this before, then we can do it again.

How did they do it? I don’t know, but I hope to learn from their experience. I don’t know any movement that’s gotten 15 million people worth of municipal resolutions. I think that’s a new thing that speaks to the novelty of mobilizing people via the internet and digital communications tools which give us the capacity to do something like that.

It’s exciting!

For more exciting updates, and to learn more about the campaign, visit:  http://bluedot.ca/.

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