There has never been a more compelling case for recognizing that every Canadian, present and future, has the right to live in a healthy environment. Clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food, non-toxic products and flourishing biodiversity are essential to our health and well-being.
Yet according to the Canadian Medical Association and World Health Organization, exposure to environmental hazards is causing tens of thousands of premature deaths, millions of preventable illnesses and billions of dollars in unnecessary health-care costs in Canada every year.
These daunting statistics actually camouflage the fact that behind these numbers are people we know and love — family, friends and colleagues harmed by cancer, asthma, heart disease and other painful afflictions. The good news is that almost all of this pain and suffering could be prevented.
As it stands, Canada has some of the weakest environmental laws in the wealthy industrialized world. We have no legally binding national standards for air quality or mandatory drinking water quality guidelines, and we continue to allow roughly 1,000 pesticide products for sale that are not allowed in Europe because of health and environmental concerns.
The one advantage of being a laggard is that you can learn from the leaders. The right to a healthy environment enjoys constitutional protection in more than 110 countries — well over half the world’s countries. Their experiences show that recognizing this right has powerful potential, spurring stronger environmental laws, better enforcement of those laws, and greater public participation in environmental decision-making.
The economic counter-arguments ring hollow. Norway offers a dazzling rebuttal of the claim that recognizing the right to a healthy environment would cost jobs and damage Canada’s economy. Norway’s constitution recognizes the right to a healthy environment. Norway is a major oil and gas exporter but has much stronger environmental laws than Canada and takes a much bigger share of resource revenues for the public.
According to the Conference Board of Canada, Norway outperforms Canada environmentally, economically, socially and on health care. While Norway isn’t perfect, surely its successes are worth emulating. Canadians should not tolerate being treated as second-class citizens.
Canada is a big, beautiful country full of people who cherish it immensely. Our governments and businesses are letting us down by failing to protect the people and places we love. It’s time to recognize our right to live in a healthy environment so that Canada can stop being a laggard and become a genuine green leader!