The Fight to Breathe Easy: Is Bill S-5 the Answer?

Health Canada estimates that there are 15,300 premature deaths, 2.7 million asthma symptom days, and 35 million acute respiratory symptom days linked to air pollution each year. Environmental burdens in Canada are not distributed equally amongst its residents, which disproportionately fall on the most vulnerable members of society. 

The most vulnerable suffer a higher risk of health issues. There are communities across Canada who are not able to breathe clean air or live healthy, fulfilling lives and require protections from a right to a healthy environment. In Ontario’s Chemical Valley, this disheartening fact is demonstrated as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation battles against environmental injustices in the form of air pollution. 

In 2017, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development found that environmental justice, or the obligation of non-discrimination in environmental protection, can prevent “the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens from toxic exposure in Canada” (Tillerman, et al., 2003, p.84). The sponsor of Bill S-5, Stan Kutcher, echoed this sentiment as the addition of protection for vulnerable populations was deemed necessary for environmental justice. These views on environmental justice are demonstrated by the case of Chemical Valley. 

In Sarnia, Ontario, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation has continuously experienced adverse health effects such as increased rates of asthma, reproductive defects, and hospitalizations for cerebral policy as a result of its proximity to Sarnia’s Chemical Valley. Chemical Valley is a group of chemical plants, refineries, and manufacturing plants – half of which are extreme air polluters within 5 kilometres of the First Nation. The emissions assessments conducted do not recognize the First Nation as a vulnerable population. Further, the data on the air pollution emitted by Chemical Valley does not accurately depict the threat posed to the community as the government assesses the emission of each facility independently – not acknowledging their cumulative effects. “[T]he people of Sarnia breathe some of the most polluted air in all of Canada [,]” said the World Health Organization, as Chemical Valley facilities had collectively emitted 300 toxic air pollutants. This created a total of 131,992 metric tonnes of air pollution in 2005. For scale, this is comparable to the emissions for the entire province of New Brunswick.

Unfortunately, solely recognizing a group as ‘vulnerable’ does not promote environmental justice. When a vulnerable group is impacted by environmental harms, it can be a result of systemic racism, lack of resources, proximity to air pollution, and other complex, intersectional concerns. The amendments to Bill S-5 – which seeks to update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act – do not mention these concerns nor include measures to correct the issues. In reality, the Bill does not require that the government fully understand the situation of the specific group at all. 

Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and the threat it poses to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation cannot be resolved by the amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act if the Bill is unable to effectively identify and address the causes of the environmental harms. To demonstrate a true intention to aid vulnerable populations and protect communities such as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation from dangerous air pollution, the Environmental Protection Act must ensure that the government and all relevant actors understand the root causes of environmental injustices, and the vulnerable population designation must carry a special protection. It is only then that the Bill will live up to its promises. 


Megan Cormier is originally from New Brunswick, Canada but moved to Ottawa last year to study Law at the University of Ottawa with a specialization in Environmental Law. Outside the classroom, Megan is currently working on a small-scale, zero emission farm in Kemptville, ON learning about sustainable and ethical farming practices. 

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