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New law gives Canadians legal right to healthy environment

Thursday, June 5th 2008 10:47:23am

For Immediate Release  

New law gives Canadians legal right to healthy environment

Cornerstone environmental legislation introduced by environmental groups

Ottawa, Ontario, June 5, 2008 - Three leading environmental organizations are using the United Nations' World Environment Day to launch the first Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights (CEBR), model legislation that would enshrine in law the right of all Canadians to a healthy environment.

The proposed Environmental Bill of Rights was researched and drafted by pro bono lawyers at Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), on behalf of Friends of the Earth Canada and the Sierra Club Canada. The groups are asking parliamentarians from all federal parties to advance the legislation through the House of Commons.

"We are calling on our political leaders to rise above the gridlock of a minority government to embrace this transformative piece of legislation," said Margot Venton, one of the Ecojustice lawyers who drafted the legislation.  "Passing the Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights is both a rare and urgent opportunity for all parties to show political leadership at a time when it is sorely needed."  

The Bill would strengthen Canada's framework for protecting the environment, by establishing a statutory (rather than a constitutional) right to a healthy environment and by imposing a legal duty upon Ottawa to protect this right.  Environmental rights are well established in law. Over 100 countries recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, and Ontario, Quebec, Yukon and Northwest Territories have provided a statutory right to a healthy environment.  

"It's time that Canada caught up with the rest of the world in recognizing the rights of citizens to a healthy environment," said Beatrice Olivastri, CEO, Friends of the Earth Canada. "Canadians, everywhere in this country, deserve protection against environmental destruction and its negative impacts on their health."

Beyond establishing this basic environmental right, the Bill would also guarantee key procedural rights, such as access to environmental information, the ability to participate in environmental decision-making, and the ability to request investigations and policy reviews. As well, it would empower Canadians, in specific and limited circumstances, to sue the federal government when it fails to enforce its environmental laws.

"Canadians deserve environmental accountability, and the federal government must earn the trust of Canadians," said William Amos, a lawyer at the University of Ottawa Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic. "If federal laws and regulations are not being enforced, citizens need affordable recourse to the judicial system."

The enforcement provisions of the proposed Bill are similar to federal and state laws passed in the U.S. in the 1970s that give citizens the ability to take legal action when environmental laws are not being enforced. Canada's provincial and territorial laws, as well as certain federal laws like the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, provide for limited citizen enforcement mechanisms.  

"This is a historic opportunity for Parliament," said Jean Langlois, National Campaigns Director of Sierra Club Canada. "The interests of individual Canadians are compromised when decisions run roughshod over our common natural legacy. Our legal system currently provides limited and costly opportunities for the public to address such injustices.  The CEBR would finally give all Canadians the tools necessary to protect their environmental rights."

For more information, or to obtain a copy of the draft text, please contact:

Will Amos, Ecojustice (613) 562-5800 ext 3378, cell (613) 255 7505 (English/French)
Beatrice Olivastri, Friends of the Earth (613) 613 241-0085x26, cell (613) 724-8690
Jean Langlois, Sierra Club Canada, (613) 241-4611, cell (613) 266-5326 (English/French)

Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights


The goal of the proposed Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights (CEBR) is to ensure that the right to a healthy environment is upheld in relation to the federal government's environmental responsibilities. It prioritizes the values of transparency, access to information, accountability, and public participation in decision-making and adequate enforcement. It establishes a right to a healthy environment, and imposes a public trust duty upon the federal government to adequately protect the environment. It empowers Canadians, in specific and limited circumstances, to access justice by bringing legal proceedings where federal enforcement is lacking.  

The CEBR should be seen as a kind of "environmental contract" between the federal government and the citizens of Canada. Under the CEBR, Canadians explicitly entrust the federal government with the primary responsibilities for environmental protection. However, where such responsibilities are abdicated, Canadian citizens may hold government to account. By empowering Canadians, the CEBR will better ensure that our right to a healthy environment will be respected. In doing so, governments will earn the trust of Canadians on an issue that we cannot afford to mishandle.

No fewer than 118 countries across the world already recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.  Therefore, the Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights is not a new or radical concept. The provisions of this model legislation were drawn from, or inspired by existing environmental statutes across Canada, including the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights, the Yukon Environment Act, the N.W.T. Environmental Rights Act, and Quebec's Environmental Quality Act.

The Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights would apply only to areas of federal jurisdiction over the environment.  It does not encroach upon provincial responsibilities.  As well, the proposed CEBR acknowledges and respects constitutionally protected aboriginal rights.  

Key Provisions

The key provisions of the proposed bill include the following:

1. Establishment of an Environmental Right
This is the core of the EBR, from which the other provisions flow. By granting citizens the individual and collective right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment, they are equipped to address threats to their local environment. Canadians would be vested with a right of action against the federal government for breach of this environmental right.

2. Establishment of a Public Trust Duty
The federal government would be required to uphold its public trust duty to manage and protect the environment for the benefit of current and future generations.
Canadians would be vested with a right of action against the federal government for breach of this public trust duty.

3. Access to Environmental Information
Only through unfettered access to environmental information can citizens make informed decisions about how best to protect their environment.

4. Right to Participate in Environmental Decision-Making
Environmental impacts of government decisions can have significant and wide-ranging impacts on individual and community interests.  Citizens must be guaranteed the opportunity to participate in decisions that impact on federal environmental responsibilities.

5. Right to Request Review of Policies, Regulations and Laws
All Canadians have an interest in ensuring that our environmental policies, regulations and laws are as efficient and effective as possible. By granting citizens a right to request their review we ensure that these instruments will remain most effective.

6. Right to Apply for an Investigation
If Canadians believe that their environmental rights have been violated, they should have the opportunity to request government investigations.

7. Access to Justice: Right to Bring an Action
Citizens must be empowered to bring a legal action in court against the federal government to uphold the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment, and to ensure the fulfillment of the federal public trust duty.
Citizens must be empowered to bring a legal action in court against parties who are harming the environment in violation of a statute, regulation, or permit. These enforcement mechanisms are important given that the federal government often does not, for reasons of resource shortages or a lack political will, adequately enforce its laws and regulations.  It is anticipated that such actions will be used sparingly, and will create an incentive for better enforcement.

8. Whistleblower Protection
For the CEBR to function optimally it must protect employees under federal jurisdiction from employer reprisal when they assist in [the enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies under the Act.
Without such environmental whistleblower protection, employees may be intimidated into silence to the detriment of all Canadians.

The organizations

, formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund, is Canada's leading non-profit organization of lawyers and scientists devoted to protecting the environment. Since 1990, we have helped hundreds of groups, coalitions and communities expose law-breakers, hold governments accountable and establish powerful legal precedents in defence of our air, water, wildlife and natural spaces. www.ecojustice.ca

Friends of the Earth Canada
is a charitable, non-profit environmental organization that serves as a national voice for the environment, working with others to inspire the renewal of our communities and the Earth, through research, education and advocacy. It is the Canadian voice for FoE International, the world's largest grassroots environmental network, uniting 70 national member groups. www.foecanada.org

Sierra Club Canada
is a grassroots network with offices across Canada working to protect the integrity of global ecosystems since 1963 www.sierraclub.ca