A New Brunswick group has received the prestigious 2023 United Nations Human Rights Prize for its contribution to the United Nations (UN) recognition last year of the universal human right to a healthy environment. The Environmental Rights Caucus (ERC) of the New Brunswick Environmental Network, along with other human rights organizations, received the award October 16.
The ERC’s work in drafting a proposed New Brunswick Environmental Bill of Rights was instrumental in its receiving the award. As a member of the global Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI), the ERC was able to share its work with the UN and CERI members worldwide.
ERC members expect that legislation for an environmental bill of rights based on their work will be tabled by the Green Party in the New Brunswick Legislature next month. Calls to the Green Party seeking confirmation of that expectation had not been returned at the time this article was written.
ERC chairperson Marg Milburn said a possible provincial election call makes it difficult to know if environmental rights legislation will be presented in the legislature this year. The ERC’s draft legislation would protect the health of both humans and critical ecosystems which sustain all life.
“We have made presentations to all three parties,” Milburn said. “The Greens were in favour, and the Liberals were supportive.” A lack of questions following the ERC presentation to the governing Conservatives was concerning, she said.
“If the right to a healthy environment had been recognized earlier, we wouldn’t have the serious environment problems we have now.”
Sam Arnold and Denise Melanson are both members of the ERC. They, and Milburn, agree that, while climate change is the most critical environmental challenge faced today, there are many pressing issues.
“Whether we talk about climate change, industrial air pollution, water contamination, exposure to toxic chemicals or loss of biodiversity, as the environment is damaged so are we,” Melanson said. “Traditional environmental assessments ignore health impacts on human beings, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are all part of the same environment that we share with all other living creatures.”
“We need environmental laws that compel governments to examine accurately and honestly the human costs of our use and abuse of the world in which we live,” she said. “We desperately need to find a better balance while we still can.”
Arnold said he is aware of a “lot of concern and fear for the future” that illustrates the need for enshrining environmental rights in law. He sees a critical need to deal with the climate change crisis now, both for our own well-being and the well-being of future generations.
“We have to look to the future and think long-term. If we start doing that now, we have a chance.”
Arnold is critical of the so-called ‘nuclear option.’ He points out that not one of the “Small Modulated Reactors” (SMR) being vigorously promoted by Premier Higgs and others has ever been built.
“We don’t have time to develop a new technology and bring it on-stream,” Arnold said. “SMRs only exist on drawing boards.”
Meanwhile, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has congratulated the ERC for its important work being recognized by the United Nations. “I appreciate your advocacy efforts, and of the Global (CERI) Coalition, with respect to the right to a healthy environment on the international stage.”
To date, three Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island) and three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have enacted Bills which recognize the human right to a healthy environment.
The need for such legislation in New Brunswick is growing daily. Since 1995, the National Pollutant Release Inventory has gathered information on Canadian companies that release one or more of over 300 listed substances to the air, water or land.
Between 1995 and 2006 in New Brunswick, the highest volume of carcinogens released to the air occurred in five communities: Dalhousie, Belledune, Saint John, Miramichi and Edmundston. Those five communities all have cancer rates higher than elsewhere in the province.
Dallas McQuarrie is a NB Media Co-op writer living in the unceded Mi’kmaq territory of Signiktuk.