April 29, 2015

Erin backs Blue Dot campaign for environmental rights

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was an easy decision for Town Councillors to declare Erin as a Blue Dot community, in support of David Suzuki’s bid to guarantee environmental rights in Canada’s constitution. It will not oblige them to spend money or doing anything different.

The real debate will be within the federal and provincial governments, which would have to endorse any change to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I love this town – every part of it is bordered by rolling hills, woodlands, farms and waterways,” said resident Gerry Walsh, requesting council’s support at the April 21 meeting. “Together, everyone in our Town can declare this basic human right – to breathe fresh air, drink clean water and eat healthy food.”

Erin is the fourth municipality in Ontario to commit to these principles. So far, most of the support has been in British Columbia. Mayor Al Alls has promised to express his support for the Blue Dot Movement in a letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Supporters of the Blue Dot Movement celebrate after Erin Town Council
 passed a declaration in favour of a constitutional right to a healthy environment.
Left to right: Joanne Kay, Myrtle Reid, Gerry Walsh and Don Chambers.
Details of the campaign are available at bluedot.ca. Suzuki supporters hope to build grassroots pressure from local communities to support a Charter amendment. That would require the official support Parliament plus seven provinces, representing more than 50% of Canada’s population.

It is a very ambitious and idealistic plan, since senior level politicians will no doubt consider the many court cases that it will take to define citizens’ rights on air, water and food. Imagine the impact if anyone in a big city could claim a legal right to breath air unpolluted by cars and factories. Who would pay the cost of bringing clean drinking water to all First Nations communities or making good food available to everyone now living in poverty?

I did not get the impression that Town Council was signing up for a revolution. But faced with climate change, dwindling oil, over-population, erosion of our natural heritage and unsustainable consumption, that’s what we’re talking about.

At its core, the environmental movement is promoting a new culture with different expectations. Green policies may save money in some areas, but will require radical changes to our economy in the areas of transportation, energy generation, food supply, housing, health care, taxation and environmental protection.

“It reminds me of the industrial revolution,” said Walsh. “This is the next phase we’re moving into. Some people are going to suffer and some people are going to benefit, but we have to move forward.”

Efforts to enshrine environmental rights in the constitution were unsuccessful when the Charter was negotiated 35 years ago, but they are definitely worth advocating again. More than a hundred countries have them in their constitutions, resulting in progress rather than chaos.

Enforcement of legal rights will always be problematic, but in general, if a country enshrines its goals, they are more likely to be at least partly achieved.

It is important to remember that Charter rights are not absolute, but are subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This puts issues in the hands of politicians, the law-makers, which is quite proper. Some would argue that environmental rights could be expanded by the courts under the Section 7 right to “life, liberty and security of the person”, or by direct reference of a question from a government to the Supreme Court.

Judges, however, should not be creating major changes to the Charter of Rights. The most legitimate process is the more difficult one. If a political consensus for environmental rights can be built throughout the country, with sustainability as a widely accepted priority, a formal constitutional amendment will become a logical final step. That consensus does not yet exist, but it is interesting to see the construction work going on in our own town.

In the meantime, environmentalists need to continue doing what they do best – convincing the public and elected representatives to support policies that will help us weather the coming storm.