The Liberal government is proposing long-awaited changes to an environmental protection law that includes a recognition that everyone 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 and other polluting materials to protect the environment and people from their harmful effects.
Scientists and environmentalists have been calling on the Liberals to make what they say are badly-needed improvements to the law — such as a requirement that substance assessments include the cumulative effects of repeated exposure.
A parliamentary committee on the environment studied the act, which has be reviewed every five years, and recommended 87 changes.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said around 35 of those recommendations made their way into the bill — among them an amendment that would recognize the 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."
Critics call out enforcement measures
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said he applauds the bill's commitment to look at how chemicals affect vulnerable populations, from pregnant women and children to racialized or marginalized communities located near such facilities.
He said he hopes adding the right to a healthy environment to legislation gives Canadians the means to force prosecutions and suspend a company's ability to sell certain products when environmental laws are broken.
"You would use CEPA to determine whether or not some community's disproportionately being impacted by a toxic chemicals … whether those people's rights are being violated," said Gray.
Department officials say the department will come up with a framework within two years for how a right to a healthy environment would be considered under the act, but that right will be confined to that legislation.
Gray said Tuesday's proposed changes need more scrutiny, but he believes other positive moves include assessing the cumulative impacts of chemicals and new labelling requirements for cleaning, cosmetics and furniture products.
One area where the bill is lacking, he said, 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," he said.
"I don't see it addressed here at all."
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