My grandparents came here from Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it would be a one-way trip, the perilous journey across the Pacific was worth the risk. They left behind extreme poverty for a wealth of opportunity.
But Canada was different then, a racist country built on policies of colonization, assimilation and extermination of the land’s original peoples. My grandparents and Canadian-born parents, like indigenous people and others of “colour”, couldn’t vote, buy property in many places or enter most professions. During the Second World War, my parents, sisters and I were deprived of rights and property and incarcerated in the B.C. Interior, even though Canada was the only home we’d ever known.
A lot has changed since my grandparents arrived, and since I was born in 1936. Women were not considered “persons” with democratic rights until 1918. People of African or Asian descent, including those born and raised here, couldn’t vote until 1948, and indigenous people didn’t get to vote until 1960. Homosexuality was illegal until 1969!
In 1960, John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government enacted Canada’s Bill of Rights, and in 1982, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals brought us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with equality rights strengthened in 1985.
We should celebrate those hard-won rights. I’m happy to have witnessed much of the progress my country has made. But there’s room for improvement. And in some ways Canada has gone backward.
When I was a boy, we drank water from lakes and streams without a thought. I never imagined that one day we would buy water in bottles for more than we pay for gasoline. Canada has more fresh water per capita than any nation, but many indigenous communities don’t have access to clean drinking water.
When I was growing up in Vancouver, Dad would take me fishing for halibut off Spanish Banks, sturgeon on the Fraser River and salmon in English Bay. Today I can’t take my grandchildren fishing in those places because the fish are gone.
As a boy, I never heard of asthma. Today, childhood asthma is as common as red hair. And half of all Canadians live in places with unacceptable air pollution.
I also remember when all food was organic. I never thought we’d have to pay more not to have chemicals in our food. Today we can’t avoid the toxic consequences of our industrial and agricultural activities. We all have dozens of toxic pollutants incorporated into our bodies.
We may think the highest rate of deforestation is in the Amazon but in 2014 Canada became the world leader in loss of pristine forests.
Surely, in a nation with so much natural wealth, we should expect better appreciation, treatment and protection of the air, water, soil and rich biological diversity that our health, prosperity and happiness depend on.
The right to live in a healthy environment is recognized by more than 110 nations — but not Canada. That inspired the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice to launch the Blue Dot movement a little over a year ago.
It’s exceeded our expectations, with more than 100 municipalities passing environmental rights declarations and a number of provinces considering or committing to the idea. The next step is to take it to the federal level, by calling for an environmental bill of rights and, ultimately, an amendment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The environmental rights campaign is also about human rights and social justice — something recognized by the United Nations, which has appointed a special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. A country and its values are measured not by the number of extremely wealthy people but by the state of its poorest and most vulnerable. Many environmental problems are tied to societal inequities — hunger and poverty, chronic unemployment, absence of social services, inadequate public transit and often conflicting priorities of corporations and the public interest — as people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and toxic pollution.
Canada has come a long way, but we can’t be complacent. We must work to maintain and strengthen the rights of all Canadians, to build an even better Canada. That means giving all Canadians the right to a healthy environment.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
Image: Kris Krug