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Canada’s Constitution should include right to healthy environment, argues new book

Science·What on Earth?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we explore the idea of including environmental protections in the Constitution and where Canadians stand on plastic-bag use in grocery stores.

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

This week:

  • Canada's Constitution should include right to healthy environment, argues new book
  • Canadians are getting the hint about plastic bags
  • B.C. photographer captures 'odd but exciting' crow behaviour known as anting

Canada's Constitution should include right to healthy environment, argues new book

(Mark Goodnow/AFP via Getty Images)

Through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are guaranteed rights including life, liberty and equality for all. But what about the right to a healthy environment?

It's something University of Ottawa environmental law professor Lynda Collins would like to see added to the Constitution, and she has created a clear roadmap in her new book, .

She says environmental law has seen big successes, in some cases bringing species back from the brink of extinction and reducing air pollution. But despite a complex web of environmental regulations at federal, provincial and municipal levels, we haven't achieved a sustainable environment — largely because those laws are subject to the shifting stances of politicians and regulators.

"For example, the federal government can make regulations about fish, and waters where fish live, but no level of government is actually required to protect our environment," Collins said in an interview with host Laura Lynch. "Governments could, and kind of are, leading us down a path to catastrophe without ever violating the Constitution, which I think is really strange."

In the book, Collins outlines some of the key elements of an ecological constitution — among them the principle of sustainability, which would protect against laws or government actions that harm the environment. It also includes the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as well as the rights of nature, which grant fundamental rights to things like rivers and forests.

"Sometimes, serious environmental pollution doesn't obviously violate the rights of existing humans," said Collins. "So it can be more honest and more straightforward just to say, 'Look, you're violating the rights of this river' or 'You're violating the rights of this mountain ecosystem.'"

Collins's constitutional plan also emphasizes intergenerational equity — that is, the idea that society has a legal obligation to future generations — as well as the precautionary principle, which says that if there's a real potential for something to do irreversible harm to the environment, society shouldn't wait for definitive science before drawing the line.

"If we are waiting for scientific certainty before we're regulating for sustainability, we could easily wait until it's too late," said Collins.

Collins's ecological constitution would also rely heavily on Indigenous knowledge, law, science and leadership.

Darcy Lindberg, an assistant professor and specialist in Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) constitutionalism at the University of Alberta, says Collins's approach is one that Indigenous nations have long been advocating.

Under the current Canadian model, Lindberg argues, Indigenous peoples regularly have to go to court to fight environmental harms. A constitution that starts from a place of protection would fundamentally shift that position.

Indigenous nations are also revitalizing their own laws and writing their constitutions, he said, and the natural world plays a central role.

"This always includes their relationship with their land," said Lindberg, who hopes the Indigenous constitutions will put additional pressure on non-Indigenous governments. "It's something that is just so innate that it would almost seem like a violation when we think about ourselves as constituting peoples if we're not considering our relationship with lands, waters, animals, plants — all those things that are around us."

Collins admits that reopening the Constitution to add environmental protections is no small matter, but she says we know it can be done because more than 100 countries around the world have done it — from New Zealand to Ecuador, Pakistan to the Netherlands.

"These laws of ecology, they're not negotiable. So you can, to a certain extent, download your debts to your kids and your grandkids, but you can't avoid them," said Collins.

"It's really a question of whether you want to leave it to your kids to put back together the ecological foundations of our society, or whether you want to do the hard work of figuring that out now."

Reader feedback

Last week, we asked readers what they were doing differently in their gardens this year. Here are some of the replies.

Bernie Klassen: "I let my lawn grow till the dandelions withered, then I mowed (it was hard on the lawnmower). By then, the bees had moved to my lilac trees and to the apple tree after that. There was buzzing everywhere I went — a magnificent sound! Next will be the annual flowers, the mulberry tree and the milkweed in late summer. I would like to think I'm doing my part."

Trish McMaster reported "planting native perennials that attract pollinators and [I] have a new drought-resistant thyme lawn that requires no mowing, little watering AND looks beautiful and is heaven to walk on."

Margo Karolyi: "I have a huge lawn (7,500 square feet) that was in place when we bought our rural property outside Scotland, Ontario. I've stopped trying to keep it 'perfect.' I've allowed 'weeds' to infiltrate its borders, planted clover seed instead of grass seed to 'fill in the gaps,' and stopped applying fertilizer. It's greener than ever, with a random variety of multicoloured weeds flowering throughout. I like it much better than before."

Cynthia Way: "This year we're trying to up our vegetable game. We've added a new raised bed to the three we already had, and are growing in containers, too. We're trying new varieties of tomatoes, peas and lettuce from a local organic seed producer and are just trying to grow more of the things we've done before. In the flower garden, we've added a few new pollinator-friendly plants. There's new ninebark (which is also native), yarrow and aster to go with the echinacea, rudbeckia, liatris, Russian sage and cornflower we already had. I've also moved a couple of blueberry bushes into the mixed border. As always, we don't use pesticides or herbicides…. All in all, we are thrilled with the garden so far this year. 'Dirt therapy' has helped us stay sane."

Dustin Carey: "Most years, my partner and I take a multiweek trip during the summer, making getting a garden established difficult. With no such plans this year, we've planted tomatoes, peppers, spinach, arugula, carrots, cucumbers and herbs in a balcony garden."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! A million species are at risk of extinction. New research shows a February disaster in the Indian Himalayas was triggered by an avalanche of rock and ice and highlights the risk of a warming climate. This week, host Laura Lynch hears how social media helped dozens of scientists piece together the story. airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Reducing our use of plastic bags

In recent years, the issue of single-use plastic has galvanized people around the world. Kenya, for example, banned plastic bags in 2017 and forbids people from bringing plastic bottles and the like into natural protected areas. The Canadian government announced last year that it would phase out six single-use plastic items by 2022: plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks and six-pack rings as well as cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released 2019 household data on plastic use and found that when it comes to grocery shopping, most people have already been conditioned to reuse their own bags. While four per cent of households remain holdouts on this front, 96 per cent have at some point reused bags at the grocery store — with 43 per cent reporting they do it all the time. While this appears to be a positive development, The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found that thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of single-use plastic found on Canadian shorelines nearly doubled in 2020.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

B.C. photographer captures 'odd but exciting' crow behaviour known as anting

(Tony Austin Photography)

Photographer Tony Austin recently captured a peculiar image of a crow with its wings covered in dozens of tiny black ants in the throes of what appeared to be a behaviour he described as a "very odd and violent dirt bath."

The image also captured the imagination of hundreds of devotees of a Facebook group called Picture Perfect Vancouver Island after the Metchosin, B.C., photographer posted it on Monday.

"I'd never seen anything like this," said Austin. "It was odd but exciting behaviour."

Austin was in Victoria's Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary that day. When a murder of crows landed close to him, he noticed what appeared to be a bird in distress. His photographic instincts kicked in, and he crouched down to capture a closeup.

It wasn't until Austin got home and enlarged the images on a monitor that he noticed the crow had ants crawling all over its body. He posted the image to the Facebook group and asked people to weigh in on what they thought it might be.

Many commented they had never seen such behaviour while others were concerned the bird was being attacked.

"But a couple of more informed birders were telling us it was anting," said Austin.

To experts, anting is something of a mysterious behaviour where birds rub insects, usually ants, on their feathers and skin. Some birds will sit still on an anthill and patiently allow the creatures to crawl freely through their feathers. At other times, they have been seen to pick the ants up with their beaks and rub themselves with the tiny insects.

Sensing a threat, the ants shoot a spray of formic acid from their abdomens or anal glands, which is absorbed into the bird's body and acts as a natural insecticide.

The reasons for the behaviour have confounded experts since it was first observed in the 1830s, when James Audubon noticed turkeys doing it. The National Wild Turkey Federation says anting has been seen in more than 200 species of birds worldwide.

A widely held theory, according to the federation, maintains that birds use the ants to soothe irritated skin during periods of heavy feather moulting. Another theory suggests the ants help control parasites that live in the bird's plumage.

"The ant also becomes something to eat," said David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology with McGill University.

A 2015 study by Paul Hendricks and Gwen Norment published in the Northwestern Naturalist looked at several possible functions for the behaviour, going all the way back to 1935. The research didn't come to any definitive conclusions, but one curious theory posited that crows were anting for "self-stimulation."

"There is the possibility that anting serves more than one purpose whose expression depends on the individual bird and context of the anting activity," wrote the authors.

Bird said experts are unable to determine what the purpose of many bird behaviours may be.

"I don't think anyone has done a definitive study on anting behaviour yet," he said. "I don't think we have the full answer yet."

But he said that capturing an image of a bird in the throes of anting is "very rare."

Austin only recently started shooting nature and wildlife, and while he had no idea what he was witnessing at the time, he is thrilled to have captured such an uncommon sight.

"It's kind of like a treasure hunt," Austin said. "You always hope for a shot like that, but it doesn't come around too often."

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