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Canada’s inaction on toxic exposure a disturbing sign

OTTAWA (6 June 2019) A UN human rights expert has questioned the efforts of Canada to prevent discrimination from the toxic impacts of business activities.

“Canada leaves many questions to be answered regarding whether equal protections are afforded from toxic exposures, and why victims have been denied their right to an effective remedy for decades,” said Baskut Tuncak, the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

“There is a pervasive pattern of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of unquestionable risks and injustices from the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures. Indigenous peoples, the poor, children, older persons, workers, and people with disabilities are at grave risk of impacts on their human rights, compounded by a general inability to access justice that must be addressed.”

The UN expert was speaking after a two-week tour of Canada when he visited communities plagued by toxic exposures, which he says violated their human rights. He discussed recent progress and challenges with the Government of Canada and various provinces, businesses, physicians and concerned communities.

Releasing his preliminary findings at a press conference, Tuncak highlighted the ongoing delay in remediating 10 tons of mercury contamination that dates back 50 years and continues to poison the Asubpeeschoseewagong and other First Nations in north-western Ontario.

“The case of Grassy Narrows and White Dog is emblematic in the overall pattern of government inaction in the face of grave risks to the health of indigenous peoples. The Government has not adequately explained their inaction, and why as such it should not be considered discrimination. Despite the indignity of what they have had to endure, the pride and perseverance of these communities to defend their rights should be applauded.”

The UN expert also discussed the impacts of extractive industries on human health and wildlife, elevated incidences of diseases among indigenous peoples linked to oil sands extraction in Alberta, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project in British Columbia, the historical injustices against the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley”, impacts of aerial spraying of pesticides on indigenous lands and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, among others. He said that throughout testimonies he had received, the mental health impacts on affected communities of the loss of their culture and lands, and uncertainty over potential physical health impacts were raised as a significant concern.

“Certainly Canada has made important advancements,” said Tuncak, noting broad restrictions on asbestos, Québec’s ban on the aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate in forestry, Ontario’s ban on coal fired power plants, ongoing studies to better understand the nuanced impacts of childhood exposure to toxics, and the shared responsibilities of Health and Environment Canada on certain issues.

“Canada has both the financial and technical capacity to be on the path of sustainable development, and where a healthy environment is more than a privilege. However, grave concerns remain regarding the insufficiency of protections afforded under relevant laws to protect air and water quality, the lack of prosecution in clear cases of illegal corporate conduct resulting in harmful exposures, and the challenging fragmentation of authority between provincial and federal governments.”

He said it was disappointing that the Canadian parliament had yet to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through legislation, despite repeated pledges by the Government, and urged the legislature to do so.

Tuncak also said the impacts of Canadian businesses extend far beyond the country’s borders. “The illegal export of waste to countries in Asia such as the Philippines, and refusal to remedy the situation, is yet another example of inaction by the Canadian Government when its businesses impact certain groups.”

The activities of Canadian extractive industries overseas were particularly concerning, Tuncak said. “I am deeply troubled by evidence of disregard for the human rights of communities abroad, including the failure to prevent and mitigate toxic pollution, pressuring foreign governments to lower standards of protections, blatant disregard for existing environmental laws, misleading communities regarding the nature and impacts of proposed projects, among other grave concerns.”

The Special Rapporteur will present his conclusions and recommendations to an upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council.

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