Go big or go home, is a quote often associated with innovation or idea generation. This essay tries to capture a very special ‘go big’ concept – include the Environment in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, the famous 1982 Charter that has helped define what it means to be a Canadian. Yes, the Provinces argue over the ‘notwithstanding’ parts of this document. Yes, the Courts continue to have their go at interpreting this keystone legislation. And, yes, there is room for the Charter to grow and encompass new directions as our democracy unfolds. Is it now time to define the Environment as a major right and freedom that Canadians deserve?
The keystone concepts include freedom of conscience and religion, thoughts and beliefs, and the press and media, peaceful assembly, and association. In all, there are 34 categories that define our rights and freedoms; yet there is no mention of the ‘Environment’ as a right or a freedom. These Charter statements act both as a foundation and filter for decisions and actions that we take as Canadians. Except the Environment is not in the Charter.
So why is that important? It seems that many issues, constraints, and problems we face today in Canada and worldwide are environmental. Yes, equality and language rights and minority rights are still evolving but they are already addressed in the Charter and are being worked through. The Environment does not benefit from such foundational authority; hence the debate, discourse, and challenges we face today.
What would it possibly look like to enshrine the ‘environment’ in the Charter? The right to a preserved and sustainable environment sounds fine. Or, how about ensuring an enduring legacy for future generations and to continuous enhancement of life for everyone. Any wording needs to understand future challenges and be robust enough to survive a ‘watering down’ of the intent.
The Environment, included in the Charter, would confer legal status and confirmation that the Environment is a reality in our lives. It would signal to everyone that this must be taken seriously as to how we build, repair, legislate, and respond to be in harmony with Nature. It would sanction what is beginning to happen as industry and businesses take the Environment into account in their planning and actions. A flood or wildfire is not a debate like an intangible concept like ‘respect’ or ‘Democratic Rights’. A flood or wildfire is as real as it gets. In our current rush to be ‘green’, we will benefit from deeper directions through legislation. Yet, the Environment is not in the Charter.
Climate change impacts on so many lives – drought, fire, flood, heat, and air pollution are increasing disasters worldwide. Yes, great harm is caused by not respecting and acting upon the Articles already in the Charter; but at least, they are in the Charter. Often the harm is to groups or individuals. Harm from the Environment is widespread and involves not only economic hardship, but deep personal and emotional harm. After each storm or natural disaster event, statements of the costs for damage often reach dizzying heights and each new one brings even greater costs. The human costs are noted daily on the six o’clock news.
The financial and human costs confirm each successive year is hotter or wetter or colder or more destructive than the last one. Insurance is skyrocketing due to the coverage expected. Repair and reconstruction costs are exorbitant. Communities strive to create new or better legislation to keep ahead of the natural disasters. Note: the Environment is not in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Gibsons, B.C. is one community that gets it right. It is the first in Canada to recognize and accept that the Environment offers Natural Resources and real tangible assets. It has partnered with the Suzuki Foundation and other groups to include this concept into its municipal financials. (See: Smart Prosperity, Town of Gibsons). This town has fostered others to begin to incorporate the Environment and Natural Resource Assets into their planning and budgeting. If small communities can do it, think of the impact if the Environment was part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Environment reporter, Kathryn Baum wrote that the throughout history the land, air, and waters were used and abused. Most often with no regard for the damage that humans brought to these natural areas.
Still today, developers and some municipalities will cover a wetland or build on a flood plain. Joni Mitchell got it right when she sang about ‘paving paradise and putting up a parking lot’. Once an environmental problem occurs, a human engineering solution is used to try to resolve the problem. Big costs and big infrastructure to solve what might have been solved much earlier with much more forethought and less cost. Little regard is shown for supporting nature in being self-healing if left alone. Unfortunately, humans often damaged the environment so badly, even Nature could not repair it. So, what might happen if humans worked in harmony with Nature and the Environment. If the Environment was in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no self-respecting community or company or industry would think about doing harm to Mother Earth. Kevin Carmichael describes the ‘dithering’ over climate change and the need for banks to build risk-management infrastructure. Sanctions are ahead for banks unless they apply as strict standards to climate change, as they do to small business loans.
Here is the cruncher that makes a case for the Environment to be in the Charter. Carmichael states that the Bank of Canada has little regulatory power but by lending its influence in this way, it becomes a neutral benchmark for environmental policy. A friend has created a medical innovation called Samepage Health in which there is alignment in purpose and function for all those responsible for a patient’s health – the patient, medical staff, the pharmacist, therapists, and administrators – all on the same page, thus offering better outcomes and more costefficient healthcare. What if the developers, the loggers, the First Nations, business, and industry, and Governments were all on the same ‘environmental’ page!
Think of the influence from the Federal Government and Federal Courts to support respectful environmental policy throughout the land, if only the Environment was in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Geoffrey Morgan, states that many Canadian businesses are already moving toward higher environmental standards in their practice. He cites COPE26 as a catalyst for the banks, asset managers, and industries such as Barrick Gold Corp and Teck Resources Ltd. coming on board with procedures more in line with doing business in a climate changed Canada. What a boast it would be to have the Environment in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This writer lives in an environmentally-sensitive community that is at the bottom of two major watersheds and two major rivers. One river was so powerful it pushed gravel ahead of itself, created a dam and then did a right-angled turn and joined the other river and left a blind channel in the lower outlet to the ocean. Right, the ocean, lapping at the edge of town…that ocean…the rising one. The dormant volcano, Mt Garibaldi, overlooking my community, is part of the Mount St. Helens chain. Then there are the tinder dry coniferous forests that defy logic during the summer heat domes. The town is surrounded by world-class steep mountain cliffs that occasionally just drop straight down. A new concept – an atmospheric river of rain has now arrived with some regularity. All of this with no public audible warning system in place. One must register with the municipality to be placed on the warning call list… what a mad idea. Would I sleep better if the Environment was in the Charter and guiding policy and decisions in my community? You bet.
Is there a case for including the Environment and natural resource assets into the Charter? Yes, a resounding case and growing in importance. Nudging, influencing, suggesting, and recommending all have their place, but hard copy statements in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would clearly define an intent and an expected outcome. What more lofty goal would enable Canadians to know the natural world in which they live their lives and make their living will continue to contribute to their health and welfare. Yes, it is time to put the Environment into the Canadian Charter of Freedom and Rights.
After teaching stint at Nipissing University and working as an administrator at the Maple Leaf International School in Trinidad & Tobago, Larry Murray moved to Squamish and became the founding Chair of the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation. Murray has served as the past chair of Sea to Sky Crime Stoppers and as a past director and Eagle Watch coordinator with the Squamish Environment Society. He has also done consulting work with SD44 and contributed to the new Cheakamus Centre. He is currently serving the community as a member of the Brackendale Art Gallery committee.