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The right to a healthy environment

May 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Toronto should join the chorus

By Mike Layton

As Canadians, we celebrate our differences from coast to coast, but there is one important thing that we all share in common, our natural environment.

As spring blooms we are reminded of the beauty of the world around us. We reflect on the importance of the natural environment and how it nurtures and sustains us. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. We all contribute to it, we all have an impact on it, and we all benefit from it.

There is an undeniable link between human health and environmental health. The City of Toronto recognized this long ago, and we are investing now for our future and for the future of our children.

We work hard to prevent smog days by reducing air pollution and have invested in infrastructure and programs to prevent pollution from entering our waterways because we know the damage it can cause. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that environmental contamination, including polluted air and water, causes as many as 36,000 premature deaths annually in Canada.

So why isn’t our right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and have clean soil in which to grow food protected under the law?

A hundred and ten governments around the world have recognized that their citizens have the right to a healthy environment, but not Canada.

Five provinces and territories (Quebec, Ontario, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) have some form of environmental rights legislation and six cities in Canada have passed environmental rights declarations, including Yellowknife, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Still, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not explicitly recognize or address environmental rights, leaving us among the few countries that do not yet recognize the rights of its citizens to a healthy environment.

Many Canadians, including one of my personal heroes, David Suzuki, think that environmental rights should be protected under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and I agree.

That is why I put forward a motion at the May 5 meeting of city council recommending that Toronto join the chorus of cities who have passed environmental rights declarations in support of the Blue Dot campaign, an initiative of the David Suzuki Foundation and its partners.

The foundation has been working with cities across Canada to recognize the rights of their citizens to a healthy environment with the adoption of a municipal declaration of environmental rights.

My motion recognizes that all people have the right to live in a healthy environment, to breathe clean air, drink clean water, consume safe food, access nature, know about pollutants and contaminants released into the local environment, and to participate in decision-making that will affect the environment. The motion was referred to the Executive Committee for a public hearing in June.

Toronto needs to re-establish itself as a champion of environmental stewardship and the emerging low-carbon economy. We have made some progress.

Last year, I moved a motion at the Parks and Environment Committee to establish a subcommittee on climate change and recommended that Councillor Gord Perks be appointed as chair.

The Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Subcommittee had their first meeting on March 2, 2015. It was the best attended meeting of this term of council.

Public deputations went until midnight as residents and experts shared their ideas and priorities with city councillors.

The issues shared ranged from urban agriculture to clean air, and from transit to animal habitats. Further public hearings and round tables on these issues will be hosted by the subcommittee in the coming months.

A Toronto declaration of environmental rights would show support for our residents’ rights to clean air, clean water, and safe food, signalling Toronto’s continued leadership in building a healthy, sustainable city and drawing attention to the Canadian Charter’s unfortunate silence on environmental issues.

Mike Layton is a Toronto city councillor for Ward 19.

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