OTTAWA — The Liberal government is proposing long-awaited changes to an environmental protection law that includes a recognition every person living in Canada has a right to a healthy environment.
Officials with the department of Environment and Climate Change Canada say defining what a "healthy environment" means or how exactly that right could work within the Canadian Environment Protection Act will be determined through consultations.
It's one of the proposed amendments the Liberals have put forward to the act in Bill C-28, tabled in the House of Commons Tuesday,
The 1999 law outlines how the federal government regulates toxic chemicals as well as other polluting materials, with the goal to protect the environment and people from their harmful effects.
Scientists and environmentalists have been calling on the Liberals to make what they say have been badly-need improvements to the law, such as requiring substance assessments to include the cumulative effects of repeated exposures.
A parliamentary committee on the environment studied the act, which has be reviewed every five years, and made 87 recommended changes.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said around 35 of those recommendations made their way into the bill, including recognizing peoples' right to a healthy environment.
"This is not symbolism," Wilkinson told a virtual news conference from Vancouver.
"The legal right to a healthy environment will lead to stronger protections in tandem with the evolving science, especially for groups of people vulnerable to high levels of pollution, who live downwind or downstream.
This includes the Canadians who may be at greater risk of exposure or are more susceptible to the risks of chemicals."
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, applauds the bill's commitment to look at how chemicals impact vulnerable populations, from pregnant women and children, to racialized or marginalized communities located nearby such facilities.
He said he hopes to see a right to a healthy environment mean there is a way Canadians can force the prosecution and suspension of a company's ability to sell certain products in the event environmental laws are broken.
"You would use CEPA to determine whether or not some community's disproportionally being impacted by a toxic chemical … whether or not like someone who's selling a toxic skin whitening cream that is only being purchased by people with brown skin, whether those people's rights are being violated," said Gray.
Department officials say a developing a framework for how a right to a healthy environment will be considered within the act has to happen within two years, but that right will be confined to that legislation.
Gray said Tuesday's proposed changes need more scrutiny, but believes other positive moves includes assessing the culminative impacts of chemicals and new labeling requirements for cleaning, cosmetics and furniture products.
One area where the bill is lacking, he says, is on improvements to enforcement.
"Enforcement is a problem, both in terms of how it's required by the civil servants who do it, but also the access to the courts for citizens to fight toxins that are harming them,"
"I don't see it addressed here at all."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press