Environmental and physicians groups urge the Prime Minister to swiftly introduce amendments to strengthen key environmental protection law

TORONTO – A report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics tabled at the 45th session of Human Rights Council presents troubling findings about the state of environmental racism and disparate health risks caused by toxic chemicals and pollution in Canada.

The report, which summarizes the observations of the Special Rapporteur during an official visit conducted in the spring of 2019, brings to light the deep rooted and grave failures of federal laws, including the cornerstone Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), in protecting Indigenous communities and vulnerable populations from the harmful impacts of toxic chemicals and pollution.

“This report powerfully lays bare that Canada’s toxic pollution problem is a racial and environmental justice problem that Indigenous people and other marginalized communities have borne the brunt of,” says Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Manager at Environmental Defence. “Canadians are urging the federal government to take swift action towards achieving a green and just economic recovery. Tackling environmental racism must be at the heart of such recovery.”

The Special Rapporteur calls attention to numerous incidents of persistent and health-devastating exposures to toxic pollution as a result of discriminatory decisions to place polluting industries and landfills near Indigenous and Black communities across Canada.

“The report reinforces what the Aamjiwnaang First Nation who have breathed in industrial pollution, what the community of Africville who were used as a dumping ground and the Indigenous communities in Alberta near leaky tailing ponds who are concerned about their drinking water supply have been saying for decades,” says Dr. Elaine MacDonald, Healthy Communities Program Director at Ecojustice. “Canada is simply not doing enough to protect the public’s health and the environment from toxic pollution. Most concerning is that out-of-date laws and poor policy add up to a disturbing pattern of systemic discrimination against Indigenous communities and people in vulnerable situations.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur makes several recommendations to the federal government to address environmental injustice and prevent toxic exposures including recognizing the legal right to a healthy environment, establishing legally binding and enforceable air quality standards, taking action on chemicals banned in other jurisdictions, increasing transparency of chemicals in consumer products, and requiring the protection of vulnerable populations including workers in the assessment and regulation of toxic chemicals. These recommendations are consistent with the recommendations proposed by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, which extensively reviewed CEPA in 2017.

“The top recommendation in the Special Rapporteur’s report is that Canada recognizes the right to a healthy environment in law. We fully agree,” says Lisa Gue with the David Suzuki Foundation. “Strengthening environmental laws to include a human rights lens will help prevent environmental injustice and ensure that environmental protection measures benefit all people in Canada.”

Earlier this month, a new study added to the body of evidence that toxic pollution may be playing a critical role in influencing not only the intensity and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the disproportionate health outcomes experienced by racialized and vulnerable communities. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report makes a compelling case that government action on toxics and environmental justice is a necessary component of the solutions needed to tackle health disparities in Canada in the face of the current and any future pandemics.

“Chronic exposure to toxics makes it even harder for communities to be resilient in the face of other diseases like COVID-19,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia and Board Member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Many of the same communities that have been hard hit by this pandemic experience high toxic exposure. This report makes clear the deep inequities present in our current regulatory systems. We must take action now.”

A Parliamentary petition calling on the House of Commons to pass legislation to strengthen CEPA without delay has attracted more than 6,000 signatures and will close this November.

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For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Brendan Glauser, David Suzuki Foundation, bglauser@davidsuzuki.org, 604-356-8829
Sarah Jamal, Environmental Defence, sjamal@environmentaldefence.ca, 905-921-7786
Sean O’Shea, Ecojustice, soshea@ecojustice.ca, 416-368-7533 ext. 523
Anjali Helferty, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, anjali@cape.ca, 647-218-9505