Changing the charter

Should environmental protection be a nationally-recognized right?

When it comes to environmental well-being, many countries have become a physical manifestation of their leaders’ efforts. Unfortunately, Canada is one of them.

Environmental activist David Suzuki recently made a stop in Winnipeg on his national Blue Dot Tour, which will likely be his last set of cross-country appearances (to limit his carbon footprint, Suzuki has begun to “cluster” appearances geographically, and plans to speak only by video conference in the future). The tour aims to engage Canadians in environmental action by encouraging them to demand the recognition of their environmental rights within their own communities. By doing so, tour organizers hope that provincial governments will follow suit, and the recognition of these rights will eventually be included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The movement is gaining momentum daily, and has already garnered the support of over 25,000 Canadians. This is no longer strictly an issue concerning the environmental community - it’s too late for that. The variety of their supporters (including such Canadians as electronic music artist Grimes, politician Stephen Lewis, and novelist Margaret Atwood) has made this incredibly clear.

For many, the increased action and visibility for these issues could not have come soon enough. No matter your political tendencies, it has become impossible to ignore the magnitude of Canada’s environmental issues, and our government’s failure to adequately address them. From their 2011 decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, (a United Nations convention governing the emissions of heat-trapping gases) to cutting research and clean air regulation enforcement budgets at Environment Canada, to the now ubiquitous practice of preventing scientists from discussing their work with journalists, Canada’s status when it comes to environmental well-being has dropped significantly. In fact, a 2013 assessment by the Washington-based Center for Global Development ranked Canada dead last concerning environmental protection; in a report on the rankings, the Center noted that Canada was the only country to make no progress in this area.

According to its website, the Blue Dot Tour endorses the “simple, yet powerful idea that all Canadians deserve to breathe fresh air, drink clean water and eat healthy food,” and insists that these goals can only be realized through a nationally recognized accord, like the proposed amendment to the Charter. 

While access to clean drinking water is something perhaps taken for granted by most Canadians, the recent government-commissioned National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems categorized 39 per cent of water systems on reserves as high risk, meaning that they have major deficiencies that pose a threat to individual health, safety and the environment. This statistic is unsettling at best, especially when contrasted with the fact that according to the United Nations Development Program, over 99.8 per cent of Canadians have access to pure drinking water and safe sanitation.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists that Canada is simply “a little more frank” than others in its environmental policies that have begun to solidify our government’s reputation of favouring the economy over the environment. However, environmental hazards lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths, millions of preventable illnesses and over $100 billion in health-care costs every year, according to the Canadian Medical Association and the World Health Organization, making Prime Minister Harper’s statements not only misinformed, but dangerously so.

Now is a time when governments worldwide are being forced to truly face the deteriorating state of their environment - what better time for Canadians to band together and demand change? While the Blue Dot Tour’s mission is not foolproof, (accords to the Charter have failed before: see Meech Lake and Charlottetown) without a subversive approach, it’s hard to believe that the present government would take it upon itself to act.

Caitlyn Gowriluk is a first-year Rhetoric major at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 69, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 12, 2014)

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