Environmental Rights: the “rights” path to sustainability

Environmental Rights: the “rights” path to sustainability

Update:  The Environmental Rights Act died on the order paper. A new Manitoba government was elected on April 19th.).

The Government of Manitoba introduced an Environmental Rights Act (Bill 20) this Wednesday.

The purposes of the Act are to:

(a) protect the right of present and future generations to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment by the means provided in this Act;

(b) confirm the government’s responsibility to protect the environment within its jurisdiction;

(c) ensure that Manitobans have access to sufficient environmental information and effective mechanisms for participating in environmental decision-making;

(d) provide a means for Manitobans to take action to enforce environmental rights; and

(e) provide legal protection against reprisals for employees who take action to protect the environment.

The Act goes on to cite the central principles of environmental law:

  • Precautionary principle;
  • Polluter pays principle;
  • Principle of sustainable development;
  • Principle of intergenerational equity; and
  • Principle of environmental justice.

 

These principles will guide implementation of the Act.  As well, the Act creates obligations for the government including a requirement that all government departments must consider these central principles when “making a decision on a matter that may have a significant effect on the environment”.

The Act also creates several procedural rights for Manitoba residents.  These rights include:

  • A right to environmental information,
  • A right to participate,
  • A right to request reviews of existing law and policy or to assess the need for new laws and policies (the reviews of conducted by an environmental commissioner),
  • A right to request an investigation of a violation of an Act or regulation that “has caused or will imminently cause significant environmental harm”.
  • A right to commence an action in “court against a person who has contravene an Act or Regulation, if the contravention has caused or will imminently cause significant environmental harm”, and
  • A right to commence an action against the government for failing to enforce an Act or regulation where that failure “has resulted or will imminently result in significant environmental harm” (with the possibility of a court declaration against the government).

 

Other notable sections of the Act provide for:

  • The appointment of the Environmental Commissioner.
  • Whistle blower protection which prohibits employer retribution arising from its employee’s participation under the Act,
  • An agricultural activity exemption (i.e., the operation and administration of the Farm Practices Protection Act is not impacted).

 

Why not Alberta?

Alberta is no stranger to environmental rights.  An Environmental Bill of Rights was introduced as far back as 1978 (and 1979) and again in 1990 (and 1992).  While these Bills were not passed, Alberta has integrated some limited environmental rights into other statutes, such as the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Water Act and the Responsible Energy Development Act.

However, several aspects of Alberta’s laws require an environmental rights makeover.   Alberta needs:

  • Expansion of public/ Albertans’ rights to participate in decisions about laws, regulations, policies and authorizations,
  • Effective, third party oversight of the government implementation of its statutory duties (while the Alberta Auditor General provides some oversight,  it has an overly broad mandate with minimal resources),
  • Comprehensive whistle blower protection, and
  • Public rights to seek compliance and enforcement with legislation.

 

Environmental rights are central to Albertan’s quality of life, environmental justice and better decision making.  To this end, the ELC is conducting an assessment of existing environmental rights in the province to identify gaps in rights protection and to design a road map to a future which values these rights.  You can expect much more on this topic in the coming year as we seek to engage Albertans in this important endeavour.   Assuming Manitoba’s Bill is passed it will be a significant step forward in protecting the environmental rights of its citizens.  Now it’s Alberta’s turn!

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