Advocacy for environmental justice is an ongoing need in Canada. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a specialized office to coordinate and implement environmental justice programs. The Agency defined environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
While there has been some movement in Canada, we still have more work to do in law, policy and practice to achieve environmental justice by addressing the climate crisis, environmental racism, gaps in protection of Indigenous peoples in particular on reserves, and ensuring the right to a healthy environment is enshrined for all.
As physicians and health care providers, and in the context of the leadership of Indigenous colleagues and members of CAPE, we understand that the community’s health is directly connected to the health of the land. We treat people who experience negative health impacts from toxic exposures related to their environments. Environmental racism is a reality for many of our patients, particularly for Black, Indigenous and immigrant communities who bear a disproportionate burden of exposures and illnesses related to their geographic and social locations.
Environmental racism occurs when environmental policies or practices intentionally or unintentionally result in disproportionate negative impacts on individuals, groups or communities based on racialization and unequal access to environmental benefits. Examples of environmental racism in Canada have been documented in a 2020 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.
A universal approach to environmental policies will not necessarily benefit communities disproportionately impacted and marginalized through current systems and conditions. We need to be intentional about environmental racism and the health harms for many peoples living in Canada. Indigenous and Black people living in Canada should have a say in what happens in their communities and have power over their environments and exposures.
Initially introduced by former Liberal MP Lenore Zann, Bill C-230, An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism, had made its way to the final stage of debate in the House and gained the support of all parties except the Conservatives. But before it could proceed to a third reading in the fall, an election was called, and Bill C-230 died on the order paper.
CAPE, and more than 20 other organizations with the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice (CCECJ), signed a joint letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to deliver on his platform commitment to re-introduce Bill C-230, as reported by committee, and seek the agreement of other parties to proceed to third reading before the end of the year.
We encourage you to reach out to your MP and let them know that as their constituent, a health professional, and a CAPE member, you will be looking to them to support and fulfill environmental commitments that will improve the health of the planet and the people on it. Ask for the reintroduction and passage of Bill C-230 to help uphold the government’s commitment to “table legislation to require the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to examine the link between race, socio-economic status, and exposure to environmental risk, and develop a strategy to address environmental justice.” You can also send your message to the Prime Minister and Minister of the Environment.
The Right to a Healthy Environment
Environmental conditions related to climate change and other modern-day exposures are adversely impacting individual and community health. The right to a healthy environment – uncompromised by economic interests – is a right that all people should have. 156 UN Member states already recognize this right. The UN recently declared that access to a healthy environment is a human right. And Canada needs to catch up.
The first reading of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, including the right to a healthy environment on April 13, 2021, was an essential first step. But the bill died on the order paper with the election call. We need a commitment to introduce a significantly stronger bill to reform the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and work to pass this bill by summer 2022 to ensure people living in Canada have the right to a healthy environment.
The Coalition for Environmental Rights, of which CAPE is a member, is also active on CEPA Reform and Bill C-230 and is asking candidates across the political spectrum to support your right to a healthy environment by signing the MP pledge for environmental rights.
Gaps in Environmental Protections on Reserves
CAPE hired an environmental lawyer to investigate and report on CEPA and toxics on reserve lands. The report identified a “regulatory gap” that leaves Aboriginal land without the same environmental protection as lands under provincial jurisdiction. The gap is widely acknowledged within the Canadian federal government and has been identified as a significant issue many times over the last 15 years.
CAPE is moving forward to identify any next steps to address this gap in the most appropriate way, following the lead and standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples for whom the problem and possible solutions will have the most critical implications.
Possibilities to close the regulatory gap as part of the CEPA review or another route to address the regulatory gap aligned with recognition and respect for Indigenous self-determination are being explored.
Additional CAPE resources on Bill C-230, Environmental Racism, and the Right to a Healthy Environment:
- CAPE submission to highlight the importance of passing Bill C-230: An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism into law.
- “Enviro groups ask feds to adopt environmental racism bill”: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/10/22/news/enviro-groups-ask-feds-adopt-environmental-racism-bill
- ENRICH Project on Bill C-230: https://www.enrichproject.org/billc-230/
- Ecojustice on environmental racism: ecojustice.ca/environmental-racism-in-canada/
- David Suzuki Foundation on environmental racism: https://davidsuzuki.org/expert-article/environmental-racism-what-is-it-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/
- Green Budget Coalition recommendation to fund a Canadian Office of Environmental Justice and Equity: greenbudget.ca/recommendations2022/
- CAPE blog post on the right to a healthy environment: https://cape.ca/why-the-legal-right-to-a-healthy-environment-matters-to-our-day-to-day-realities/
- CAPE webinar series on environmental justice: https://cape.ca/webinars/