Ottawa, ON, Anishinaabe territory: Bill S-5, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, is the first major reform of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) in over 20 years. CEPA is Canada’s cornerstone piece of environmental legislation governing pollution and toxic substances.
One of the most significant changes is the recognition of the right of every Canadian to a healthy environment. The Bill also recognizes a positive duty on the Government of Canada to protect the right to a healthy environment by developing, within two years, an implementation framework detailing how this right will be administered.
The right to a healthy environment is currently recognized in the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, but this is the first time the right is recognized in federal legislation. This change is consistent with the 2022 United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment as a human right. Around the world, the recognition of a right to a healthy environment has led to more accountability, stronger environmental laws and increases in public participation.
The recognition of the right to a healthy environment in Bill S-5 includes special consideration of vulnerable populations in Canada. This will change the discourse of environmental justice towards a rights-based approach, acknowledging the different ways individuals and communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental damage. Bill S-5 defines vulnerable populations as “a group of individuals within the Canadian population who, due to greater susceptibility or greater exposure, may be at an increased risk of experiencing adverse health effects from exposure to substances.” Because of the unique harms that environmental degradation imposes on women and girls, we hope to see the right to a healthy environment realized through equality-affirming and gender-sensitive actions.
The particular emphasis on recognizing the circumstances of vulnerable populations is especially relevant for Indigenous communities, including Indigenous women and girls. Indigenous populations must be legally protected against disproportionate environmental exposures and toxic harms. Bill S-5 amends the preamble of the CEPA to affirm Canada’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite these positive steps, NAWL joins other environmentally conscious organizations, including the Coalition for Environmental Rights, of which NAWL is a member, in calling for stronger protections. Bill S-5 does not offer enforcement mechanisms for this right and risks inefficiently addressing disproportionate exposure effects felt by Indigenous and racialized communities. The Ministerial discretion involved in enforcing and protecting this right is of concern, particularly given the vague language and timelines used regarding the development of the implementation framework.
More work needs to be done to adequately regulate and manage toxic substances under the CEPA. Currently, 1 in 8 women in Canada are being diagnosed with breast cancer, 70%-90% of which are linked to environmental exposure. Women, children, Indigenous communities, and racialized peoples are also at an increased risk for cancer due to air pollution and chemical exposures, among other consequences. The implementation of updated chemical labelling, public access to information and data, clear action timelines, and improved risk mitigation measures and standards are necessary to begin to address these realities.