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Everything You Need to Know About the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)

Author: Tolu Amuwo

Editors: Asha Swann, Anna Huschka, Manvi Bhalla

Graphics by: Tolu Amuwo, Iris Molony-Everett


My name is Tolu Amuwo and I authored this piece. I use she/her pronouns and live in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam territories, what is colonially known as Vancouver, BC. I have personally seen how pollutants and toxic substances have impacted my home land and waters. From the growing lack of food security to the risk of rashes and infection when swimming in polluted oceans minutes from where I live, environmental protection has always been at the forefront of my mind and can impact so much of everyday life. Through sharing this research, I acknowledge that many other impacted communities and individuals may not always have the capacity to sift through complex federal law and I hope that this piece can be a small contribution to breaking down these barriers to accessibility and public participation in government processes.


Historical Contexts of CEPA


A Need for Hard-Hitting Legislation for Chemicals Regulation & Management 

The late 20th century marked a rise in the public’s growing awareness of environmental issues (1). Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental science book Silent Spring was one of the earliest North American publications to address how synthetic pesticides led to health issues. This led  to the United States federal  government in creating the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). Another example can be found in 1987, with the signing of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty marking a global commitment to regulate the use of substances that were depleting the ozone layer. Towards the end of the twentieth century, pollution and toxic substances were at the forefront of the public’s consciousness as it concerned environmental issues (1). 


In a Canadian context, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) was a solution to the growing need to better regulate chemical substances present in our natural and built environments. CEPA, enacted in 1988, was announced by the Minister of the Environment at the time, Tom McMillan, to be the toughest pollution legislation in the Western world (2). CEPA’s main purpose is to provide a framework for protecting human health and the environment against pollution caused by toxic substances. 


Understanding CEPA and How It Works

CEPA is a complex national law. At its creation, it was intended as a way to streamline improvements for the protection of the environment. There are a few key programs outlined in the Act that protect human health covering a wide range of jurisdictions. This  includes marine and aquatic environments, transportation, and agriculture. CEPA sets the legislative basis for many other well-known federal environmental and health protection programs, including the Fisheries Act, the Canada Water Act, the Species At Risk Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. 


CEPA has also gone through many revisions over the decades. The first major revision was in 1999, in which a large emphasis was placed on pollution prevention. This revision also filled major gaps in the legislation by setting out risk assessment processes, imposing timeframes for managing toxic substances, strengthening the enforcement of the Act, and other additional provisions (3). These major revisions came into force on March 31, 2000, and form the basis of the legislation we are familiar with today. 


CEPA in the Present Day


Recent Amendments to Modernize CEPA Allowed for Legal Recognition for Everyone in Canada to Have the Right to a Healthy Environment

A major limitation and common public critique of CEPA was that there had been no explicit recognition of human rights in an environmental context (e.g. guaranteeing human and non-human beings across the country access to clean air, water, and environments). CEPA initially  lacked recognition of the adverse impacts of pollution, and how it disproportionately affects communities that systemically experience environmental racism (4). The introduction of Bill C-28 by the Canadian government in 2021 provided an opportunity to legally recognize the right to a healthy environment and call for legally binding national standards for air and water quality. 


Though Bill C-28 was not passed, it was re-introduced and passed as Bill S-5 in 2023 (4). CEPA now officially recognizes that every individual in Canada has a right to a healthy environment, explicitly states Canada’s commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and recognizes the importance of communities and cumulative effects when assessing whether a substance is toxic or will become toxic (5). 


As of June 13, 2023, the government has been on a two-year timeline to determine how the right to a healthy environment will be implemented under CEPA. The Act defines a healthy environment as “an environment that is clean, healthy, and sustainable,” but beyond that, there is no identification of what that will look like for specific communities (5). An implementation framework will be developed, and it will elaborate how the government plans to carry out the key principles of environmental justice and intergenerational equity.


Next Steps & Call to Action

From now until June 2025, the Government of Canada is seeking public input into designing an implementation framework for the right to a healthy environment. Check out our recent article summarizing emerging opportunities to weigh in on the present and future of this policy!  



References

1. University of Michigan. Origins of the Environmental Movement · Exhibit · Give Earth a Chance: Environmental Activism in Michigan [internet]. Michigan in the World [cited 2024 Mar 24]. Available from: https://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/environmentalism/exhibits/show/main_exhibit/origins.

2. Body DR. Review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 [online]. [cited 2024 Mar 22]. Available from: https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/ENVI/Brief/BR8603235/br-external/BoydDavid-e.pdf.

3. Government of Canada. Understanding the Canadian Environmental Protection Act [online]. [cited 2024 Mar 22]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/pollution-waste-management/understanding-environmental-protection-act.html.

4. Kauffman R. The Right to a Healthy Environment (and more) in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act: A First for Canadians [online]. Environmental Law Centre [cited 2024 Mar 22]. Available from: https://elc.ab.ca/the-right-to-a-healthy-environment-and-more-in-the-canadian-environmental-protection-act-a-first-for-canadians/#_ftn9.

5. Government of Canada. Discussion Document on the Implementation Framework for a Right to a Healthy Environment under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 [online]. [cited 2024 Mar 22]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/canadian-environmental-protection-act-registry/publications/right-healthy-environment-cepa.html.

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