author: Norm Wagenaar
Are clean water, air and safe foods our right?
People are mobilizing to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in our constitution
THINK BACK TO 1982, THE YEAR THE FIRST PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU brought home Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Climate change was mostly abstract theory, oil companies had only just begun to dig their shovels into Alberta’s tar sands and virtually everyone drank water from a tap.
Perhaps 35 years ago Canadians could, naively, think their country’s environment was in ‘good shape’ with tracts of untouched wilderness, mostly clean air and a supply of clean fresh water that was the envy of the world. Sure, there was pollution, overuse of pesticides and clearcutting. But the collapse of the Atlantic fishery was a decade away, Toronto suburbanites could look north past Steeles Avenue and still see farmland and fracking was unheard of.
The <em>Charter</em> is a remarkable document, tested by time and the courts to provide a degree of justice and equality that contribute to Canada routinely placing near the top of the world’s best places to live. But while it enshrines a progressive list of human freedoms and rights, it does not guarantee environmental basics such as clean air, clean water and safe food.
This is the situation the Blue Dot Movement wants to remedy. Motivated by events as global as climate change and as local as last year’s water shortage (see “When the Well Runs Dry,” Watershed, Spring 2017), the movement’s supporters want Canada to join the more than 110 other nations of the world that legally recognize their citizens’ environmental rights.
Tom Shea, a local volunteer with the Blue Dot Movement, sees a relationship between environmental rights and environmental performance. He points out that Canada ranked 14th out of 16 industrial nations according to a 2013 Conference Board of Canada report card on the environment. Only Australia and the United States – which also do not guarantee rights to a healthy environment – did worse. Nations that outperformed Canada, such as Germany, France and Norway, have guaranteed the rights the Blue Dot Movement is working to achieve.
Shea recently moved to Cobourg from the Ajax area. There, inspired by Blue Dot Movement founder David Suzuki, he began a group that persuaded most of the region’s municipal governments to recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment. (Two decades in project management at a large telecom has given him excellent skills at organizing people.)
He’s bringing the same grassroots approach to <em>Watershed</em> country, having helped form a local group of about 20 members who took the matter to Cobourg Council earlier this year. Council directed staff to put together a report on the request. At the time of preparation of this article, the draft declaration required additional review before presentation to Council in September.
Shea points out that a motion acknowledging environmental rights would not be legally binding, or commit the municipality to spending money. But what it would do is positively influence the decision-making process moving forward. “We’re trying to change the mindset here. We’re trying to make it a proactive thing. Like any big change, it starts at the grassroots level.”
Adoption at the local level, which Shea hopes will ultimately include Northumberland County, is just the first step. As of this summer about 150 Canadian municipalities had adopted similar declarations in a process meant to ultimately carry on to provincial and federal levels. The Blue Dot Movement is hoping to have rights to clean air, clean water, healthy food, nature, access to information about local pollutants and participation in the decisionmaking process enshrined as part of Canada’s constitution within five years.
The idea appears to be gaining traction. Shea says his group is excited by a recent recommendation from the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development that the right to a healthy environment be included in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Faye McFarlane, a retired lawyer who lives in Baltimore, says last year’s drought was a wake-up call for many local residents who saw their wells dry and the Moira River reduced to a mere trickle. “This was scary for us,” she says. “How can this happen on the Oak Ridges Moraine?”
While Tom Shea took inspiration from David Suzuki, Faye McFarlane came to the Blue Dot Movement via Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow, who has long been active on water rights issues. She spoke in Belleville last fall. “On the same day we saw her [Barlow] in Belleville, the Moira River had virtually dried up,” says McFarlane. Barlow’s presentation and drought conditions led to a revitalization of the Northumberland Chapter of the Council of Canadians who decided, “We’ve got to be actively involved instead of just passively involved.”
“We said, ‘what’s the bigger picture and what can we do about this?’” The answer included researching local water-taking and licensing practices and participating in a nation-wide boycott against Nestlé, a major water bottler. Although Nestlé does not bottle water locally, there are smaller companies that do (See “The Battle with the Bottle,” on page 36.) McFarlane accepts there are circumstances when bottled water can be a benefit, such as when wells run dry. But she says water taken from Southern Ontario in single-use bottles during a time of drought can be shipped and sold thousands of kilometres away. “It doesn’t come back into the aquifer.”
The Blue Dot Movement’s efforts continue an ongoing campaign. McFarlane notes that private members’ bills to enshrine environmental rights were presented to Parliament in 2010, 2014 and 2015, only to have elections cut short the process. She’s confident of success this time around, saying Northumberland-Peterborough South MP Kim Rudd has been “very encouraging” and is speaking to Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, for feedback.
The weather this summer has given some relief to the drought conditions of recent years. Faye McFarlane knows that with good quality drinking water just a turn of the tap or a plastic bottle away, it’s easy to take for granted. “They (water users) don’t see where their water comes from.”
How enshrining environmental rights in Canada’s constitution might impact water use, and a host of other issues, is a matter for the future and ultimately Canada’s courts to decide. But an article in the July-August 2012 issue of the online Environment Magazine makes for interesting perspective, citing cases in both industrialized and developing countries in which citizens used their environmental rights to successfully protect their access to clean water, air and healthy food.
For instance, France’s 2005 Charter for the Environment led to it, in 2011, becoming the first nation in the world to ban hydraulic fracking for natural gas production. France’s Council of State – the nation’s highest administrative court – has based more than a dozen decisions on the Charter, on issues ranging from nuclear power to the protection of mountain lakes.
With climate change presenting a long-term threat and Canadians facing a growing list of environmental concerns – from endangered species to poor water quality in First Nations communities – Blue Dot Movement activists think the time has come for us to join France, along with Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and a hundred other nations that guarantee their citizens’ environmental rights.
“What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves,” says Tom Shea. There are more than 109,000 Canadians who’ve joined the Blue Dot Movement so far, and 157 municipalities have passed declarations recognizing the right to a healthy environment. To learn more, visit: bluedot.ca. The website also provides an opportunity to support the movement through an online pledge or as a volunteer in your community.