Last year, in response to a consultation process initiated by the federal government, more than 11,000 Canadians voiced their concerns over Canada’s broken environmental assessment processes. Led by an expert panel, this review is intended to restore integrity to federal EA processes, which were gutted along with other critical federal environmental laws, by omnibus Bill C-38 in 2012. Environmental assessments are needed to determine the impacts of development projects on surrounding communities and ecosystems, including air and water quality.
Through this review, Canadians have made a clear call for significant changes to address critical issues such as Indigenous rights, climate change, public participation and cumulative effects of major development projects like pipelines, mines and dams. Earlier this month, the expert panel released its recommendations to government, calling for a more participatory, fair, comprehensive and scientific process.
This is important. The current approach to environmental assessment is not triggered until just prior to a project’s approval stage. By then, the company leading the proposed development would have already undergone its project design, regulatory consultation and engineering plans. Regardless of public opinion on the project, under the present system it would be difficult for the government to reject such a detailed and costly proposal, even if substantial impacts to human and environmental health were identified.
Thankfully, there’s hope. If implemented, the panel’s recommendations could lead to:
- More effective public participation, whereby Canadians would be consulted at a project’s concept stage;
- Climate change being used as a lens in decision-making, an important step toward transitioning to a low-carbon future; and
- Indigenous engagement consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
However, an important piece of the puzzle is missing. If we are to move away from merely reducing the negative impacts of development in Canada, the government needs to acknowledge that a healthy environment is not a luxury, but a necessity for our country’s prosperity and, more importantly, a human right.
Environmental assessment will remain flawed without incorporating a rights-based approach to decision-making that sets meaningful standards to ensure a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren.
It’s time for the government to legally protect our right to a healthy environment — the right to clean air and water, safe food and a stable climate. These rights could be enshrined in the revised Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as a guiding principle and, more comprehensively, as a standalone piece of legislation in the form of an environmental bill of rights. Such changes will signal a renewed approach of inclusion that upholds the goal of sustainable development, ushering in the next generation of environmental assessment in Canada.