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“The fight for this declaration is far from over.”

Municipal declaration supporting environmental rights sent back for review

by Rebecca Hussman

Since the Blue Dot campaign kicked off in 2014, more than 73,000 Canadians have signed a petition calling for constitutional environmental rights, and leaders of 48 different municipalities have declared their support for the right to a healthy environment. Halifax city staff drafted up a report that did not endorse the initiative. [Photo: R. Hussman]
Since the Blue Dot campaign kicked off in 2014, more than 73,000 Canadians have signed a petition calling for constitutional environmental rights, and leaders of 48 different municipalities have declared their support for the right to a healthy environment. Halifax city staff drafted up a report that did not endorse the initiative. [Photo: R. Hussman]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) -- There is still a chance that Halifax could be the first region east of Quebec to pass a municipal declaration in support of environmental rights.

The declaration is being sought after by local members of the national Blue Dot movement, a grassroots campaign that aims to have environmental rights added to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Since the campaign kicked off in 2014, more than 73,000 Canadians have signed the petition calling for constitutional environmental rights, and leaders of 48 different municipalities have declared their support for the right to a healthy environment.

In the Halifax region, “several thousand people have signed the pledge, and over 600 people have stepped up to volunteer,” according to a release written by Blue Dot community organizer Katie Perfitt.

Last February, Perfitt and Kate McEachern-Ali of the Halifax Blue Dot team met with the city’s Environment & Sustainability Standing Committee, advocating on behalf of environmental rights and providing them with a model declaration to work with.

After the presentation, city staff drafted up a report that did not endorse the initiative.

“It is recommended that Environment & Sustainability Standing Committee not forward a recommendation to Regional Council to consider a declaration of support for an Environmental Bill of Rights,” the report says.

On Thursday, May 14, the Environment & Sustainability Standing Committee met at Halifax City Hall to discuss how to proceed.

Committee concerns with the model declaration

“The presentation in itself gave us some good background—but as we move this forward in the form of a staff report, there are some problems,” says councillor Bill Karsten. “The challenge of supporting this movement or any municipal consideration of it as indicated in the staff report is difficult, as the final details and implications are not clear.”

The first point Karsten addresses has to do with the committee’s concerns regarding the declarations’ potential financial implications.

“We have no way at this point of knowing what this particular motion means as it comes to a process that we involve ourselves for three months every year: and that’s called budget process. We have no idea what, if any—and there may not be—budgetary implications with this (would be) once it evolves,” Karsten says.

Councillor Jennifer Watts explains that if a provincial or federal environmental regulation were to pass at some point in the future, the municipality will be forced to pay out of pocket to remain compliant.

“We don’t have the funds to do that,” Watts says.

The other main concern expressed by the committee has to do with the connection the Blue Dot movement has to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The importance of having these rights recognized—to clean air and healthy water—I get it. In principle, I support that,” Karsten says. “But are we taking a risk [...] by opening up the Charter of Rights? I take that risk very seriously.”

However, the municipal declaration in itself cannot lead to any activity of this kind at any point in time, for it is out of municipal bounds to deal directly with constitutional matters.

Aaron Ward, lawyer and executive director of East Coast Environmental Law, says that Halifax “can only do so much” since in general, municipal leaders “only have so much jurisdiction when it comes to the environment.”

Ward stresses that the municipal declaration is a non-binding statement designed to give local leaders a chance to show they care about their citizens’ right to a healthy environment.

“It would show support for the non-partisan concept of environmental rights on the municipal provincial and federal levels,” he says.

Confusion surrounding what the declaration means

Furthermore, in the model declaration given to the committee by Blue Dot volunteers, the last point calls on municipal leaders to write a letter to provincial and federal members of government directly, expressing their support amending the Charter to include environmental rights.

Watts says that upon reviewing some of the 48 municipal declarations that have been passed, she noticed that some removed this clause completely, which the committee members see as problematic.

“It’s a bit confusing about what actually does it mean to pass this declaration—if we can actually modify it, and if there’s any real need to write that letter,” she explains.

According to Perfitt, this final clause was not included in the original model declaration drafted up by Blue Dot members.

“We included that after one municipality wanted to take on an advocacy role, but it’s optional,” she says. “I’ve been trying to remind them that this is a non-binding declaration. It’s an aspirational, visionary piece. They are not bound by the declaration legally and by proxy, financially.”

Further, Perfitt says that even if the optional clause were to be kept in the declaration, the municipality would still have no legal obligation to follow through with it.

“It’s a totally flexible document. As long as the main principles remain there, any piece of the declaration can be modified to suit the municipalities needs.”

Watts says that the she is “not about defeating this motion,” and the committee voted to send the report back to city staff to add more of the information they were looking for and revisit the motion in light of the revised report.

Hopeful that Halifax leads the way

The pressure for Halifax municipal leaders to get on board with the Blue Dot mission has been strong.

“Halifax is definitely viewed as a leading centre in Atlantic Canada,” Ward says. “I think a lot of other municipalities look toward Halifax as an example setting when it comes to any number of initiatives.”

“I do have hope that this will come back to the committee as soon as possible,” Perfitt says.

“I think it’s in the best interest to the staff to move on this quickly.”

Ward mentions that the movement’s momentum, with municipalities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Yellowknife and Hamilton having achieved declarations, speaks to how the majority of Canadians support the goal of the Blue Dot to give all Canadians constitutional environmental rights. This should also help the municipal leaders in Halifax realize what exactly is at stake with this declaration.

“If Halifax council decides they don’t want to pass this declaration, I think they risk orphaning themselves—not just on the national scale, but even on a regional level,” Ward says, adding that he would not be surprised if other municipalities in Atlantic Canada achieve a declaration before Halifax.

“I’m still hopeful that council wants to do the right thing here, and I think that with a little bit of patience and persistence, we will see something come out of this in the next few months,” Ward says.

“The fight for this declaration is far from over.”


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