The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) Review and the Right to a Healthy Environment


Blog Post cover banner Photo: Natasha Kruitwagen

In the spring of 2016, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development launched a review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This week, the Committee tabled its Report: a hefty document entitled Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. The Report makes key recommendations to strengthen and improve the CEPA, and as there have been no substantial reviews or changes to the Act since 1999, we are excited and encouraged by this development. The world is constantly evolving, and it's crutial that our legislation evolve with it so that Canada's environmental laws remain responsive to current scientific knowledge and public need. 

One area that the Report focuses on is environmental rights—an issue that ECELAW has been working hard on in partnership with Environmental Rights Working Groups in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Although CEPA currently recognizes some environmental rights, it doesn’t yet recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. That right is enjoyed by citizens in more than one hundred countries around the world, and four of Canada’s provinces and territories have recognized it too. The Report recommends that CEPA’s Preamble be expanded to include the right to a healthy environment, and it also suggests that the importance of environmental rights to Indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations should be emphasized. We agree. Here in Nova Scotia, the experiences of communities like Harrietsfield, Lincolnville, Pictou Landing First Nation, Sipekne'katik First Nation and Shelburne demonstrate that although the right to a healthy environment will benefit everyone who shares Canada’s precious natural resources, it will be especially beneficial to the vulnerable populations and marginalized communities that are burdened disproportionately by environmental harms.

The Report acknowledges that environmental burdens aren’t shared equitably by communities across Canada, and so, in addition to recommending enhanced duties and accountability with regard to the health and quality of Canada’s environment and ecosystems, it also makes a number of recommendations that address environmental injustice. For example, it recommends that the Act be expanded to include an obligation to protect the environment in a non-discriminatory way; that it enhance the procedural rights that protect access to information, access to justice, and public participation in environmental decision-making; that it address the inequitable burden of toxic exposure in Canada; and that it recognize the principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As we continue to fight for Harrietsfield residents’ right to clean water, and as we continue to work in partnership with Environmental Rights Working Groups throughout Atlantic Canada, we look forward to seeing how Parliament moves forward with the Committee’s recommendations. Canadians need the right to a healthy environment, and we also need to make sure that when we secure that right it creates just and equitable benefits and responsibilities for us all.   

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Natasha Kruitwagen

ECELAW Outreach and Communications Coordinator Summer Student

JD Student at Dalhousie's Schulich School of Law