Environmental justice and the law in Canada

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Environmental justice and the law in Canada

Nathalie Chalifour and Angela Lee are scholars in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa whose work focuses on exploring how the law can be used to advance the cause of environmental justice in the Canadian context. Scott Neigh talks with them about that work, including some of its specific relevance to climate change and to the food system, and about some of the ways that legal work and scholarly work can be mobilized in support of frontline communities impacted by environmental injustice.

Environmental justice as a framework for thinking about environmental problems has its origins in grassroots organizing by working-class and poor communities of colour in the United States since at least the 1980s. Though the specifics have varied from place to place, this organizing has refused the practice common to mainstream environmentalism of separating questions of the environment from questions of social justice, and has consistently drawn attention to the ways in which environmental harms tend to be located in places that disproportionately impact communities that are racialized and/or low-income.

As often happens, the impressive grassroots energy of these movements caused ripples of change that went far beyond the original struggles. Their work pushed institutions to begin taking up environmental justice frameworks, including (at least in imperfect and partial ways) in some legal and policy contexts, as well as in some academic contexts. And the ripples have also extended into Canada.

It is interesting that even though Canada has no shortage of environmental racism and other forms of environmental injustice, this way of approaching issues has been less common here. Certainly there are particular struggles on the ground and pockets of scholarly work that have taken it up, and it is becoming more common. But, still, it remains less widespread here than in the United States.

Nathalie Chalifour is an associate professor as well as co-director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability, while Angela Lee is a PhD student. The environmental justice project they talk about in this episode is organized around a number of case studies of specific areas in which an environmental justice framework is relevant.

One, led by Nathalie, focuses on environmental justice as it pertains to climate change, or climate justice. That work involves, in part, studying the legal tools that might be useful to communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change in their efforts to better understand what is happening and to address it. This includes both developing ways that existing law and policy might be mobilized but also contributing to ongoing discussions about reforms of various sorts, including regarding the need to insert an explicit right to a healthy environment into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Another of the case studies in the project, and the focus of Angela's work, is food justice, which is concerned with the many overlapping environmental and social justice concerns related to the food system – from sustainable agriculture, to rampant food insecurity, to food safety, to migrant farm worker organizing, and much more. This case study is happening in the context of the Canadian federal government being in the process of developing the country's first ever national food policy. There are many initiatives happening on the ground related to food justice in Canada, but much of that work is fragmented, so one element of this case study involves contributing to efforts to bring groups and activists working on different aspects of the issue together in order to build robust networks that will allow a range of voices, including grassroots voices, to shape the conversation and hopefully the policy. Angela and others involved in the project are also co-editing a book on food law in Canada, and have developed a new course for law students on the topic.

Image: Modified from an image used with permission of Angela Lee and Nathalie Chalifour.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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