It’s hard to imagine the cool-headed and always articulate David Suzuki breaking down in tears. But when he listened to spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan deliver his newest work, “Shoulders”, as part of Suzuki’s cross-country Blue Dot Tour, the 78-year-old environmentalist lost control over his emotions.
“When I heard him the first time in Halifax, I blubbered like a baby,” Suzuki confessed over the phone to the Georgia Straight. “Something in the way poetry works…just cuts straight through your heart.”
Suzuki hopes that Koyczan’s new composition—which focuses on the fate of the Earth (with music by both the poet and the band Short Story Long)—will have a similar effect on Vancouverites when the Blue Dot Tour arrives at the Orpheum on November 9.
Joining Suzuki and Koyczan will be musicians Neil Young, Feist, Barenaked Ladies, Hey Ocean!, Raine Maida, Raffi, and Wanting Qu, as well as novelist Margaret Atwood and painter Robert Bateman. The 20-city tour began in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s, on September 24 and features different artists at different events. The final stop is in Suzuki’s hometown of Vancouver.
“I was so inspired to watch Terry Fox when he dipped his foot in the ocean in Newfoundland,” Suzuki said. “Nobody gave a shit. Who had ever heard of this kid, right? By the time he had got to Quebec, it was a wave, and it was a tsunami by the time he got to Toronto.”
Suzuki’s goal is nothing less than mobilizing the Canadian public to come together to have the right to fresh air, clean water, and healthy food recognized in Canada’s Constitution. If he succeeds in having a healthy environment enshrined in the country’s supreme law, it would mean that all other laws would have to conform with this right.
As an example, he pointed out that if the Constitution recognized Canadians’ right to clean water, government rules around logging in watersheds would be subject to judicial review. He also said that Canada has more fresh water per capita than any other country in the world yet there are more than 1,000 boil-water alerts sent out every day.
“People are buying water in bottles and paying more than they pay for gasoline,” Suzuki added. “And on many Indian reserves, you have polluted water. Something is fundamentally wrong and we’ve got to recognize that our highest right should be the right to the things that keep us alive and healthy.”
More than 53,000 Canadians have already joined the Blue Dot movement, which is named after a famous NASA image of the Earth from space. “It gives us a chance to really work at the grassroots because our polling indicates the vast majority—85 percent of Canadians—say either ‘I thought it was already in our Constitution’ or, ‘Of course, it should be in the Constitution,’ ” Suzuki stated.
Cities call for healthy environment
On October 14, Richmond became the first large city in Canada to embrace the idea when its city council voted unanimously to pass a declaration supporting the right to a healthy environment. It came as a result of a campaign by a citizens’ group called the Richmond Blue Dot organization.
As the Straight went to the printer on October 29, Vancouver city council was about to vote on a city staff report that also affirms residents’ right to a healthy environment. It’s part of Vancouver’s healthy-city strategy and states that this right includes “the right to clean air and water, safe food, access to nature and preservation of biodiversity”.
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer told the Straight by phone that it made sense to include this in the healthy-city strategy document. That’s because before this was considered, there wasn’t enough emphasis on the links between toxins and public health.
The document going before council now states: “Citizens also have the right to know about and say no to pollutants and contaminants released into the local environment that can cause harm, and the right to participate in decision-making that will affect the environment.”
Recently, the Federal Court of Appeal refused to hear the City of Vancouver’s argument for why it should be allowed to raise the issue of climate change in connection with Kinder Morgan’s oil-pipeline application to the National Energy Board.
Reimer suggested that had the right to a healthy environment been enshrined in Canada’s Constitution, perhaps the court would have allowed these arguments to be presented.
“It’s not that they turned down our ability to argue climate change,” she said. “They wouldn’t even allow us to argue that it should be heard, which says a lot about the lack of right you have to a healthy environment.”
Lawyer's research helped frame goal
The intellectual force behind the drive to enshrine environmental protection in the Constitution is lawyer David Boyd, cochair of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Team. He’s an adjunct professor in the faculty of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University and the author of The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution.
“I’ve actually studied 98 countries where this right is written into the constitution and in almost 90 percent of those countries, they’ve experienced a strengthening of their environmental laws, a greater role for the public in terms of environmental decision-making, and better enforcement of those environmental laws,” Boyd told the Straight by phone.
He added that countries that recognize a constitutional right to a healthy environment also perform better on indices of air and water quality than countries without this protection. He listed Canada as among a handful of nations—including North Korea, China, Kuwait, and Afghanistan—that don’t enshrine that right.
Suzuki, however, pointed out that several English-speaking countries—among them the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia—also haven’t embedded environmental protection in their constitutions even though that is seen as the norm in much of the non-English-speaking world.
Aboriginal legal systems offer insight
Boyd noted that the Canadian legal system incorporates both English common law and French civil law but it has failed to integrate legal systems developed by the other founding people of Canada: the First Nations.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, though, which Canada supports, recognizes “the right to the conservation and protection of the environment”. (The federal government has maintained that the declaration is not a legally binding document, but that assertion has been challenged by some First Nations leaders.)
“I see a real strong synergy between aboriginal rights and environmental rights,” Boyd said.
He pointed out that the so-called Tsilhqot’in ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada last summer stated that aboriginal title is a unique form of land ownership in which the rights of future generations must be considered. “That’s an interesting concept and, obviously, has huge environmental consequences,” Boyd said.
He added that nonaboriginal people are just as dependent as the First Nations on land, air, and water, which makes him wonder why the court would only impose that requirement on indigenous people.
As well, Boyd said, if the right to clean air, clean water, and healthy food were to be guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that could result in greater protection for wild salmon.
“Some of the things we’re doing to damage salmon habitat, some of the things we’re doing in terms of fish farming, and, importantly as well, Canada’s climate-change record would have to do a 180[-degree turn] if we had a constitutional right to a healthy environment,” he asserted.
However, he also pointed out that this wouldn’t stop all development.
“It doesn’t mean the environment trumps everything else,” Boyd emphasized. “What it does mean is development has to be done in a much more environmentally responsible manner.”
As an example, he cited Norway, which added this constitutional right in the early 1990s. At the time, the country’s offshore oil and gas industry was dumping thousands of tonnes of toxins. According to Boyd, this stopped when Norway passed a law halting the release of toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals into the ocean.
Boyd offers several options
One way to shake up the status quo would be to add a sentence to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms saying everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment. Boyd said this would be consistent with other fundamental Canadian rights, such as the right to vote and the right to freedom of expression. Another option, he noted, would be to copy the French approach and create a charter for the environment, which would be incorporated into the Constitution.
“It would include the right to a healthy environment but also the responsibility to protect the environment, plus a bunch of fundamental principles, like the polluter shall pay and the precautionary principle,” Boyd said. “When [former president] Jacques Chirac first raised this idea a decade ago, people scoffed at the prospect. He stuck with it, and in 2005 France added this very powerful charter of the environment to its existing constitution. So that would be a second option for Canada.”
Media commentators often say that it’s virtually impossible to achieve constitutional change because of the amending formula, which requires the assent of the House of Commons and the Senate as well as seven provinces representing 50 percent of the population. Boyd, however, said that this isn’t the only way to achieve this, although it’s his preferred method.
He said another option, which has been accomplished in 20 countries, would be to launch a court challenge seeking a judicial declaration that the right to life includes an “implicit right to a healthy environment”. This is the same approach used to have LGBT rights read into the equality provisions of Section 15 of the charter.
A third option would be to persuade a province or territorial government to refer the issue to its court of appeal. In this scenario, Boyd said, the government would ask the court if the right to a healthy environment is constitutionally protected under Section 7 of the charter, which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.
Boyd said that the territorial governments are “at the frontlines of climate change in Canada”. So is it conceivable that one of the territorial governments will forward this issue to a court of appeal in a “reference” (a question of law submitted to a judge for a formal opinion) to determine if there’s a constitutional right to a healthy environment?
“They haven’t talked about it,” Boyd said, “but I’ve had some preliminary conversations with people up there. There’s definitely some interest. When provinces and territories initiate references, it goes to their courts of appeal first, with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Meanwhile, Suzuki stated that social change can come about if the public is galvanized. He pointed to women and racial minorities winning the right to vote as examples, not to mention the advancement of LGBT rights in recent years. So he sees no reason why a constitutional right to a healthy environment can’t be accomplished within his lifetime.
“I think this one is a no-brainer because it’s about the future of our children and grandchildren,” he said. “I keep telling parents, ‘You’ve got to be the ecowarriors for your kids.’ It’s their future.”