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Canada is blessed with some of the last vestiges of pristine nature on Earth -- unbroken forests, coastlines and prairies, thousands of rivers, streams and lakes, open skies, abundant fresh air. Many of us live in urban areas, but our spectacular landscapes are embedded in our history and culture. They define and shape us as people.

We are also defined by our Constitution, which is far more than a set of legal prescriptions. It embodies our highest aspirations and values. As our nation's top law, one would expect it to reflect our connection to the land, air, water and wildlife that keep us alive and healthy. Our Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives us freedom of expression, equal protection from discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. But it doesn’t mention the environment. How can we fully enjoy our freedoms without the right to live in a healthy environment?

Some Canadians are further ahead than others. Quebec’s Environmental Quality Act and Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms both include environmental rights. Other provinces and territories -- including Ontario, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut -- provide limited environmental rights. Worldwide, 110 countries enjoy constitutional rights to a healthy environment, and 181 of 193 UN member countries support recognition of such a right. Canada and the U.S. are among the exceptions.

The sad truth is that Canada fares poorly among wealthy nations on environmental performance. A recent ranking by the Washington-based Center for Global Development puts Canada last of 27 industrialized nations. The Conference Board of Canada rated our country 15th out of 17 industrialized nations for standards on air pollution, climate change, water and other environmental factors. And the World Health Organization reports that 36,800 premature deaths a year and 13 per cent of illnesses and injuries in Canada are related to exposure to environmental hazards -- costing us tens of billions a year in health-care expenses and lost productivity.

The benefits of constitutional protection of the environment are many and the drawbacks few. In places with such a right, people have legal avenues to protect them from activities that pollute the environment and put human health at risk.

For example, Argentina's constitutional environmental-rights protection was used in a case where industrial pollution was seriously affecting the health of people along the Matanza-Riachuelo River. After residents sued the national, provincial and municipal governments and 44 corporations, Argentina's government established clean-up, restoration and regional environmental health plans. It has increased the number of environmental inspectors in the region from three to 250, and created 139 water, air and soil quality monitoring points. There’s still much to be done, but three new water-treatment plants and 11 new sewage-treatment plants mean millions of people now have access to clean water and sanitation. Many garbage dumps and polluting industries were shut down. And the local economy benefited.

A legal right to a healthy environment is not about hamstringing corporations; it's about ensuring they’re run responsibly and that people’s health and well-being come first. It’s also about ensuring laws are enforced and penalties imposed when they’re violated. The total amount of fines imposed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act from 1988 through 2010 (about $2.4 million) amounted to less than what the Toronto Public Library collected in overdue-book fines in one year, 2009 (about $2.7 million)! And it’s not a right-versus-left political issue. Jacques Chirac, France’s conservative president from 1995 to 2007, made constitutional recognition of the right to a healthy environment one of his priorities. More than 70,000 French citizens attended public hearings on the issue and France’s Charter for the Environment was later enacted with broad support from all political parties.

Evidence suggests that stronger environmental regulation spurs innovation and competitiveness, so the right to a healthy environment can benefit the economy. In the aftermath of the Walkerton disaster, Ontario strengthened its drinking-water legislation, which stimulated development and growth of the water-treatment technology sector. Countries with constitutional environmental protection, such as Norway, often enjoy high economic and environmental standards.

It won’t be easy to get the right to a healthy environment enshrined in Canada’s Constitution. But with public support and small steps along the way -- such as encouraging legal protection from municipal, regional and provincial governments -- we can make it happen.

Watch a short video about the Right to a Healthy Environment.

With contributions from from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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