Kaitlyn Mitchell, a staff lawyer for Ecojustice Canada, thinks it’s time the federal government enshrines the right to a healthy environment.
“We should have air and water that is safe and doesn’t pose serious risks to our health,” she says.
As part of the Environment, Sustainability and Society Lecture Series at Dalhousie University, Mitchell spoke about environmental justice and social transformation to a packed auditorium in the Marion McCain Building.
Fellow speakers included Dorene Bernard, a Mi’kmaq First Nations activist, and Katie Perfitt, an activist and community organizer in Halifax.
Canada, the second largest country in the world, is home to 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, 25 per cent of the world’s wetlands and 20 per cent of the world’s remaining wilderness.
Mitchell says Canada isn’t doing enough to protect and promote a healthy environment for its citizens.
As of 2013, the Centre for Global Development ranked Canada last among the 27 wealthiest countries in its commitment to environmental protection.
While 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment in their legislature, Canada fails to enshrine this right within its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mitchell says eight out of 10 Canadians believe the country needs stronger laws to protect the environment.
According to David R. Boyd, one of Canada’s leading environmental lawyers, 98 per cent of Canadians view nature as essential to the human environment.
For Mitchell, environmental rights promote equality, protect health and stop further attacks on the environment.
“While it’s not a magic bullet, a right to a healthy environment is one tool that could improve the situation and lead to more equitable dispersion of environmental pollution in this country,” she says.
In particular, Mitchell says low-income and First Nations communities are subject to pollution from harmful industrial developments.
In 2011, Sarnia, Ont., where 40 percent of Petro-Canada’s chemical industry is located, had the worst air quality in Canada.
Mitchell says residents in Aamjiwnaang, a native reserve in Sarnia, face high rates of asthma, headaches, high blood pressure, rashes, miscarriages, stillbirths and other adverse health effects because of the air pollution.
Bernard says citizens have the power to change the fate of future generations.
In June 2014, members of the Mi’kmaq community in Pictou County created a blockade over an effluent spill at the Northern Pulp Mill, which posed a threat to their fisheries, ancient burial grounds and health.
According to a Statistics Canada Health Profile from January 2013, Pictou County experienced the highest rates of cancer in Nova Scotia, while the province had the highest rates of cancer incidence in Canada.
As an organizer for David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Movement, Perfitt works to influence decision-makers across Canada to recognize citizens’ inherent right to live in a healthy environment.
Perfitt says the basic right to clean air, safe drinking water and healthy ecosystems do not serve the best interests of the few government officials in control.
She says the government needs to be held accountable for the environmental battles Canada faces, such as fracking, pipelines and toxic ponds.
Since October 2014, 11 municipalities across the country have signed declarations supporting the right to a healthy environment.
Perfitt says this was accomplished by mobilizing community members and ordinary citizens pressuring government officials.
She urges young people especially to contact and pressure their local municipal politicians to implement this declaration.
“A democratic, equitable present and future won’t build itself. We have to do it.”
By Paul O’Brien from East Coast Post on Jan. 29, 2015.