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This article originally appeared as the cover story of the April 2014 issue of Halifax Magazine:

The Rights of Nature:  It’s time for Halifax to give its earth, wind and water legal standing

By Chris Benjamin

Coming home from South America, Halifax journalist Silver Donald Cameron was asked the purpose of his trip at customs. “I was making a documentary about the rights of nature,” he said.

“What’s that?” the customs officer asked.

Cameron explained the concept first constitutionally enshrined by Ecuador: just as humans have the right to safety and liberty, so the river has a right to run and the fish have a right to clean, breathable water. “Makes sense,” she said. “You’d think we’d have that in Canada given how much nature we have.”

Yes, the trees are easy to find. But the environmental problems, while deadly, are often hidden away in industrial brown-sites or as microscopic pollutants we eat, drink and breathe every day.

So most Haligonians haven’t considered giving legal standing to nature. But the idea is sweeping the globe. Over 100 nations have passed “rights of nature” laws.

Cameron, who regularly conducts long interviews with leading environmental thinkers for his “Green Interview” webcasts, sees it as the “unified field theory” of environmentalism. “You get issue fatigue with deforestation, climate change, biodiversity, mining—all these tremendously important issues,” he says. “These laws give you traction on every issue.”

When a government legally protects nature, or humanity’s right to a clean environment, corporations must take all potential impacts of their decisions into consideration. Such rules are most powerful when constitutionally enshrined. But changing the constitution is a rare and remarkable feat.

Advocates of rights of nature commonly push a bottom-up approach, starting with city governments. “More than three dozen American municipalities, from Pittsburgh to Santa Monica, have passed ordinances that recognize the right to a healthy environment and rights of nature,” says David Boyd, a leading Canadian environmental lawyer.

But uptake has been slow in Canada. Quebec and Ontario have legislation of this kind. Montreal has a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities with environmental provisions. That’s about it.

Boyd expects the idea to catch fire this year. A 2012 Angus Reid poll found 83 per cent of Canadians favour putting the right to a healthy environment in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Support was stronger here in Atlantic Canada, at 89 per cent.

Boyd anticipates that some Canadian city will become the first to take the step by the end of 2014. Then the floodgates will open. As happened in Halifax and Nova Scotia with banning cosmetic pesticides, municipal action can inspire—eventually, with a little push from organized activists—provincial change.

Similarly, dozens of communities in the U.S., responding to specific environmental threats from outsiders (heavily polluting natural gas mining, water extraction for export, or the unwanted use of toxic sludge as fertilizer) are opening the doors to action at the state level. In a few cases, elected representatives have established community bills of rights that protect nature as well as human rights—to good housing, for example—and the right to make community decisions at the community level.

Such progress will not come from higher levels. The Nova Scotia NDP said it would move forward on rights of nature legislation. It did not. Nationally, a private member’s Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights reached third reading in the House of Commons in 2011. Strong corporate backlash killed it. “It’s very clear that fundamental change is not going to come top down,” says Mari Margil, a director with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a public interest law firm focused on communities and environment.

Such a move could give the municipality the ability to address unforeseen environmental threats. The Harper government has removed many environmental protections, leaving any given jurisdiction vulnerable to whatever dollar-eyed extraction company sets its sights there. But could a municipal bylaw protect us in areas where the feds have extirpated their powers?

Therein lies the tricky bit, according to Halifax environmental lawyer Meinhard Doelle. Halifax Regional Municipality gets its powers from the province. Would this bylaw be symbolic—a statement to higher powers that Halifax cares about the environment and they should too—or a bona fide, concrete policy that holds corporations accountable for their environmental impacts?

If it’s the latter, HRM has to word the bylaw carefully so that it doesn’t overstep its powers. It can’t legislate marine pollution, for example. That’s federal.

But even the limited powers of a municipality cover significant environmental ground, from solid waste management to transit and land use planning to energy efficiency measures.

Putting a protective bylaw on the books would force anyone doing business here to take their environmental impacts seriously. As Doelle so beautifully puts it: “There is no reason not to do it.”