Intervenor: Vol 24. No 3 July - September 1999

International Issues - Executive Director's Report: CEPA's Toxics debate shifts to world stage

One of CELA's major campaigns over the past five years came to the end last month with the enactment of the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act (Bill C-32). It was a bittersweet end to the most controversial environmental law enacted by the federal government to date. On one hand, the law was continually diluted by industry and pro-industry departments. The bill demonstrated the lack of political will by the federal government to protect the environment and the health of Canadians.

On the other hand, it illustrates the contribution grassroots community and environmental groups, labour, health professionals, and others, can make to common goals and the impact those efforts can made. In particular, members of the Toxics Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network and CEN staff itself deserve a hardy thanks for their support and dedication to improving the law. Granted, in this case, the efforts did not result in an acceptable bill; however, the working relationships that were built may be one of the lasting and most productive outcomes of the entire CEPA experience.

CELA staff really should take a bow for their particular efforts. The sheer length of the campaign, the complexity of the issues and difficulty of translating those complex issues to the media and the public were just a few of the challenges.

It was an active campaign. CELA contributed to research and submissions with other organizations that would probably top 300 or 400 pages. It participated at every stage of the debate: the initial consultations, the public hearings, the formal pre-bill consultations, formal and informal consultations after first reading, the hearings of the federal Standing Committee on Environment and Development and the Senate. There were literally hundreds of meetings and interactions with groups from coast to coast with dozens of speaking engagements. A web page was designed specifically for the campaign, the "CEPA 911" site, which was probably one of the first of its kind in Canada.

During the campaign, there was a change of some 4 federal environment ministers and 4 deputy ministers. CELA went to the Supreme Court of Canada as an intervenor supporting the constitutional validity of the law. We sued the former environment minister over the interpretation of the former CEPA. Through negotiations over that action, clearer and better language in the present law resulted. CELA also brought an action, which is still on-going, over the new harmonization agreement which, it could be argued, usurps some the federal authority to act under CEPA to protect the Canadian environment.

The battle is far from over. There are enormous implementation challenges ahead that will take real trench work. The work under the harmonization agreement must be closely monitored to understand how it impacts on CEPA implementation. Further, the debate on how to address toxic substances has now transcended from the national scene to an international one with the negotiation of the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) treaty. Canada is taking an active role in those negotiations, fortified by the robust discussion that occurred nationally over CEPA.

As CELA maintained a presence in the national debate, so will we also contribute internationally to ensure that the public interest in the environment is well represented.

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA