By Peter Wood and David Boyd

When Canada adopted universal health care in the late 1960s, it marked a profound shift in the way Canadians saw themselves and each other. Public health became a common good, and everyone soon had access to care. Today’s movement for environmental rights could signal a similar shift in the ways we care for each other and our country. The push for a “green new deal” is creating greater impetus for this shift.

Like universal health care, environmental rights and a green new deal garner support from across the political spectrum. A recent poll from Environmental Defense suggests more than 90 per cent believe Canada should recognize the right to a healthy environment in law, with support cutting across party lines. Despite its roots in the U.S., a green new deal also enjoys significant support on this side of the border— from supporters of all major parties. Recent polling from Abacus Data suggests 61 per cent of Canadians favour such an initiative, with only 17 per cent opposed.

Environmental rights and a green new deal are complementary. The environmental rights movement could strengthen a uniquely Canadian version of the deal and help make it as profound a transformation and source of national pride as universal health care. The upcoming federal election provides an opportunity for us to ask candidates and parties where they stand on environmental rights.

The Green New Deal was born in the United States, named after the New Deal, a government initiative to boost economic growth during the Great Depression. It has tapped into widespread demand for a concrete plan to tackle climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, and the appeal of turning multiple crises into opportunity. It didn’t come out of thin air. It emerged from years of grassroots organizing.

Similarly, the climate change movement has been growing for decades in Canada, coalescing around opposition to subsidizing and expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, and a push to divest public funds from coal, oil, and gas. We’ve recently seen the rise of a formidable youth movement in Canada, joining counterparts around the world in school walkouts. A growing number of communities has also been leading a revolution in renewable energy, with costs continuing to plummet while employment in the sector soars.

The environmental rights movement could strengthen a uniquely Canadian version of the deal and help make it as profound a transformation and source of national pride as universal health care.

Although the U.S. Green New Deal’s job-creation aspects have received much of the attention, environmental justice principles lie at the heart of the deal and appear throughout its text. The deal would guarantee all members of society access to clean water and air, healthy and affordable food, and nature, and would address systemic injustices that have led to disproportionate pollution impacts borne by vulnerable communities, including children, expectant mothers, elderly people, and economically marginalized populations. These range from high miscarriage rates and childhood asthma to cancer and premature death. These same populations are also more likely to bear the brunt of our climate emergency.

In 2017, the House Environment Committee called attention to the heightened environmental risks posed to vulnerable communities in Canada, including Indigenous peoples, and recommended that the right to a healthy environment be recognized in law.

Since 2014, the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot movement has been working to secure environmental rights in Canada. Now, more than 170 municipalities recognize the right to a healthy environment. In the lead-up to the Oct. 21 election, this national network of volunteers is pursuing pledges from all candidates and members of Parliament. So far, 90 MPs have signed, as have many candidates.

Globally, more than 150 countries recognize environmental rights in law, with adoption going back as far as the 1970s. These countries often experience better environmental outcomes and are more likely to take action on climate change. Far from being a burden on the judicial system or the economy, environmental rights can result in better decision-making processes and help avoid conflicts. Better regulation can stimulate innovation and green job creation. Estimates show Canadians pay between $6-billion and $15.4-billion a year in direct and indirect costs related to poor environmental health. Recognizing environmental rights could reduce this economic burden and save lives.

The adoption of universal health care was a bold move at the time—something we’ve come to be proud of, a distinguishing feature of our identity. Recognizing the right to universal environmental health would be a natural extension of this deeply held Canadian value and should form part of any meaningful plan to address the climate crisis and related issues, whether we label it a green new deal or something else.

This op-ed was originally published by the Hill Times. Dr. David R. Boyd is the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and an associate professor of law at the University of British Columbia.

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