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Much To Celebrate In Committee Report On Canadian Environmental Protection Act

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act is Canada's most important environmental law. And yet, in the likely event that you are not an environmental lawyer, you have probably never heard of it.
Photo Taken In Canada, Kamloops
Photo Taken In Canada, Kamloops

Highlights include major breakthrough for environmental rights, strengthened toxics regulation and protections for vulnerable populations

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act ("CEPA") is Canada's most important environmental law. And yet, in the likely event that you are not an environmental lawyer, you have probably never heard of it.

CEPA sets out the framework Canada uses to determine which substances are toxic and need to be regulated to protect the environment and human health. It also guides decision-making about whether a new substance or genetically modified animal is safe enough to be used or manufactured in this country. For many Canadians who live near major industrial facilities, CEPA is the only reason they know what contaminants their industrial neighbours are emitting into their community's air and water.

For all its strengths, portions of CEPA are also extremely outdated. The Act is supposed to be subject to review every five years, but since it was revised in 1999, no reviews have been completed and no substantial changes have been made. That's why Ecojustice and other environmental and public health groups are celebrating a report tabled today in Parliament by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

The Standing Committee launched a review of CEPA in the spring of 2016. For the last year, Ecojustice has been actively involved in the review by providing extensive oral and written submissions and making key recommendations to strengthen CEPA and improve its effectiveness. We've spent the last year meeting with decision-makers and MPs to explain our recommendations.

We are pleased to report that Ecojustice's efforts have had a big impact.

Breakthrough for Canada's environmental rights movement

There is a lot to like about the committee's report, but one development we're especially pleased about is the Standing Committee's adoption of our recommendation that CEPA recognize and protect the right of every person in Canada to a healthy environment.

More than 110 countries recognize their citizens' legal right to a healthy environment. Canada does not. And until Canada enshrines this right in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms or introduces standalone legislation that recognizes that we all have a right to a healthy environment and a right to have a say in decisions that affect the health of our communities, it is crucial for the environmental laws we already have to fill this gap -- to the extent that they can. This way, decisions made under those laws will reflect and protect this fundamental human right.

In the last 50 years, the right to a healthy environment has gained recognition around the world faster than any other human right. Entrenching this right in CEPA would be a landmark step toward bringing Canadian environmental laws in line with the global environmental rights movement. It would also mean that, at least in the context of decisions made under CEPA, the federal government would have a mandatory duty to ensure its actions protect Canadians and do not put their lives or health at risk.

This is particularly important given socially and biologically-vulnerable populations bear the brunt of environmental harm. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, low-income populations, and other historically-disadvantaged groups, such as Indigenous communities, are disproportionately impacted by Canada's lax rules on toxic substances and pollution.

Getting toxic pollution out of our air, water, and bodies

The committee report recommends the long-overdue introduction of national drinking water and air quality standards; stronger enforcement provisions to ensure polluters are held to account; improved transparency, public reporting and consultation requirements; and faster timelines to ensure regulatory action is taken swiftly once a toxic threat is identified.

From phthalates used in cosmetics, flame retardants used in furniture, and bisphenol A used in food can linings, products we bring into our home and apply to our body each day contain chemical compounds that put our health at risk. Although alternative products may be available, not everyone can afford to buy their way out of this toxic burden.

That's why we urged the committee to call for a more equitable approach to toxics regulation, and are pleased to see it recommend that CEPA incorporate greater consideration and protections for vulnerable communities, and provide more protection from substances that interfere with our hormonal systems, also known as endocrine disruptors. The committee also agreed that rather than assessing each substance's risks in isolation CEPA, should mandate cumulative impact assessments reflective of the daily reality of multiple exposures to a range of chemicals.

Even more good news

The committee's report contains more than 80 wide-ranging recommendations aimed at improving CEPA. These include:

No proof, no use

In its current form, CEPA places the burden on government to prove substances already in use are causing harm before restrictions are put into place. The committee recommends a reverse-onus system, similar to that in European countries, whereby industry must be able to prove a substance of very high concern, such as a carcinogen, is safe before it will be approved for sale and use in Canada.

Transparent decision-making

Part 6 of CEPA governs the assessment of risks posed by new genetically modified organisms. The committee's report builds on many of the lessons learned through the application of this opaque and outdated section of the Act, including most notably in the context of the approval of genetically modified salmon manufacture and production in Canada that Ecojustice lawyers challenged in court. If the committee's recommendations are adopted, future decision-making around new substances and genetically modified organisms will be more transparent and reflective of risks to the human health, the environment, and native species.

Next steps

This report will now be considered by the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, and eventually Cabinet. In the meantime, we'll be working with our allies inside and outside government to build the broad support needed to turn these recommendations into law. We hope to see a bill tabled in the fall, with debate and voting to follow.

We have before us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically improve our most important environmental law. Let's make it happen.

Dr. Elaine MacDonald is Ecojustice's Healthy Communities Program Director and Staff Scientist. Kaitlyn Mitchell is an Ecojustice lawyer.

As Canada's largest national environmental law charity, Ecojustice is building the case for a better earth. Learn more at, or subscribe to receive updates from us via email.

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