Kaitlyn Mitchell is a lawyer at EcoJustice, Canada’s only national law charity. For more than twenty-five years, EcoJustice has gone to court to protect wilderness and wildlife, and to keep harmful chemicals out of the environment. I spoke with Kaitlyn about the ongoing campaign to make the Right to a Healthy Environment, a basic, Canadian, human right. We met at the EcoJustice offices in Toronto, Ontario.
When we started working on this it was really quite an unheard of topic. Not a lot of people were thinking about it, not a lot of legal practitioners were thinking about it, not a lot of environmentalists were thinking about it. But in the last few years there have been declarations passed in over a hundred and twenty-seven municipalities in Canada, and that’s a huge step. Those declarations indicate that there’s a large level of support amongst the Canadian public for a Right to a Healthy Environment.
Around the world, the Right to a Healthy Environment has gained recognition in the last fifty years or so, more than any other human right. And what it means is that individuals have a right to live in an environment that’s conducive to their health. It doesn’t mean that we have a right to live in a pristine world without any pollution, without any vehicles, for instance. But it does mean that you have the right to breath air and to drink water that’s not so polluted that it actually puts your health at risk.
Recognition of a Right to a Healthy Environment would mean a few things. Most importantly, it would mean that everyone, no matter where they live, no matter what their income level, no matter what their racial identity, that everyone has a right to live in an environment that doesn’t put their health at risk. In Canada we know that First Nations’ homes are ninety times more likely than the homes of other Canadians to be without clean, running water. That’s really despicable. It’s 2016. We also know that one in four low income Canadians lives within one kilometre of a major source of industrial pollution. A Right to a Healthy Environment would mean that simply put, that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to have their health put at risk in that way.
It would also mean that governments recognize the interconnectedness between the environment and our health and our dignity. There’s a lot of evidence to show the serious health impact that environmental pollution can have, from premature death to asthma to cancers. These are completely unnecessary impacts that Canadians are really feeling and that they’re feeling today. So recognition of a Right to a Healthy Environment would also be a very important way for government and Canadians to really understand and draw the links between the environment and our health and our dignity as human beings.
It would mean that in the future, Canadian environmental laws would be stronger. That they would protect not only our environment at present, but that it would protect that environment for future generations. So it could have really, really long term benefits for Canadians not only today, but in generations to come.