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

Sign up here, The Ecological Constitution: Reframing Environmental Law, What on Earth, New Zealand, Ecuador, Pakistan, Netherlands, are right here, CBC Listen, conditioned to reuse their own bags

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

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

Sign up here, The Ecological Constitution: Reframing Environmental Law, What on Earth, New Zealand, Ecuador, Pakistan, Netherlands, are right here, CBC Listen, conditioned to reuse their own bags

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, The Ecological Constitution: Reframing Environmental Law.

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 What on Earth 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.”

Jennifer Van Evra

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, What on Earth host Laura Lynch hears how social media helped dozens of scientists piece together the story. What on Earth 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.

Sign up here, The Ecological Constitution: Reframing Environmental Law, What on Earth, New Zealand, Ecuador, Pakistan, Netherlands, are right here, CBC Listen, conditioned to reuse their own bags

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Boat + robot = Roboat. The city of Amsterdam, which is famous for its forward thinking and many canals, is experimenting with self-driving electric boats to handle tasks like ferrying passengers and collecting garbage.

  • In a move designed to cut more than a million tonnes of carbon emissions annually and save consumers money, the U.K. will ban the sale of halogen lightbulbs starting in September. Fluorescent lights will follow, the government says.

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

Sign up here, The Ecological Constitution: Reframing Environmental Law, What on Earth, New Zealand, Ecuador, Pakistan, Netherlands, are right here, CBC Listen, conditioned to reuse their own bags

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.”

Cathy Kearney

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

News Related


Growing bigger prickly hedges can reduce the chance of extreme weather - and a lot more

Prickly hedges will help clean our air. Yakov Oskanov/Shutterstock In highlighting how Britain lost half its hedgerow network in only 75 years following the post-WWII move to modernise farming, a ... Read more »

COVID-19: Grant Shapps hints work to axe PCR tests for vaccinated holidaymakers is aiming for October half-term

Grant Shapps has said the government is “working as quickly as possible” to scrap PCR tests for fully vaccinated international travellers. Read more »

Black shop worker shares video of 'racist' hair comments he gets from Currys PC World colleagues

Former Sony contractor Terrelle Grahamwas told by a Currys PC World employee that it looked like he had put his “finger in an electric socket and not left”, while working ... Read more »

Air pollution: most national limits are unsafe for human health – new WHO guidelines

The combined effect of indoor and outdoor air pollution is estimated to cause seven million early deaths each year worldwide. The most harmful pollutants include nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and fine ... Read more »

Michelle Obama, Tom Cruise and Floating M&Ms: Inspiration4 Relive 'Amazing' SpaceX Journey

inspiration 4 crew Inspiration4 The Inspiration4 crew in the Dragon's cupola What's it like flying atop a SpaceX rocket and leaving Earth? Just ask the Inspiration4. Speaking with PEOPLE in ... Read more »

Your immune system is as unique as your fingerprint – new study

Christoph Burgstedt/Shutterstock Every person appears to have a unique immune system. My colleagues and I discovered this immune diversity after charting antibodies in the blood from healthy and sick people. ... Read more »

Painfully slow computer? Try this expert hack to speed it up

Some of the products written about here is offered in affiliation with AOL. We may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Slow computer making you ... Read more »

‘Absolutely' a future where everyone's DNA sequenced at birth: 23andMe CEO

The number of Americans who self-identify as multiracial leapt a staggering 276% on last year's Census, as compared with the results 10 years prior — a trend that NPR reports ... Read more »

Women disproportionately affected by £1bn state pension blunder

The DWP said it was uncertain as to the true level of potential errors. Photo: PA A new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that “repeated human ... Read more »

England will carefully manage ‘warrior' Katherine Brunt, Heather Knight assures

England captain Heather Knight expects Katherine Brunt to play a pivotal role in two huge campaigns over the winter, but accepts the veteran may need some careful management to keep ... Read more »

IPO Watch: French cybersecurity firm Exclusive Networks to be valued at €2.4bn in market debut

Cybersecurity has boomed over the last year due to more people working away from the office to combat the spread of coronavirus, boosting the need for protection amid rising levels ... Read more »

What does woke mean?

When the word ‘woke’ was named word of the year in 2019, it reflected the ongoing culture wars around issues on race, gender and climate change. Since then, ‘wokeism’ continues ... Read more »

Apple iPad mini review: The sharpest pocket-sized tablet yet

Our tester dubbed this the “Goldilocks tablet” – not too small, not too large (iStock/The Independent) Dear iPad, this isn’t an easy thing to say, but I’ve met another and ... Read more »

Huge cavity in space sheds new light on how stars form

Astronomers have discovered a “gigantic cavity” in space, shedding light on how stars form. The sphere-shaped void spans about 150 parsecs – nearly 500 light years – and is located ... Read more »

Is it safe to book a holiday? Booking tips from flexible policies to refund rights

Brits are getting an increasing choice of holiday options, with heaps of countries welcoming back UK tourists including the likes of Spain, Greece, Portugal and Turkey. Then there’s the fact ... Read more »

Apple's iPad mini gets a powerful, pricier makeover

Apple‘s latest iPad mini gets a serious power improvement and larger display, but you’ll have to pay more for the upgrade compared to the previous generation mini. (Image: Howley) Apple's ... Read more »

Government told to confront tech giants about videos that trigger epileptic fits

The Government is being pushed by an MP to confront social media giants about potentially fatal videos designed to trigger epileptic fits. Clare Pelham, chief executive of the Epilepsy Society, ... Read more »

Netflix buys Wonka author Dahl's catalog

FILE – This July 17, 2017 file photo shows a Netflix logo on an iPhone in Philadelphia. Netflix said Wednesday Sept. 22, 2021, it has bought the works of Roald ... Read more »

'EastEnders' Adam Woodyatt working on burger stall while on break from the soap

Adam Woodyatt surprised ‘EastEnders‘ fans when he was spotted serviing up burgers at a food festival. (Getty Images) EastEnders star Adam Woodyatt appears to be enjoying a busman's holiday while ... Read more »

Australian reporter brands anti-vax protesters who threw urine on him 'cowards'

Protesters gather at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia, over new COVID vaccine requirements for construction workers. (Getty) A reporter has branded his attackers “cowardly” after he was pelted ... Read more »

Llama antibodies ‘among most effective' Covid neutralising agents, PHE says

A new nasal spray is in talks to be produced, with its ingredients to include nanobodies produced by llamas and camels (Getty) Nanobodies produced by llamas and camels can effectively ... Read more »

NYC couple describe getting a $257,000 medical bill after their premature baby died in hospital, sparking a grim insurance battle

A pregnant woman (unrelated to the story) in hospital. Shutterstock Two parents lost their daughter after she was born about 13 weeks early. They later received an unexpected medical bill ... Read more »

Download patterns of catchy music resemble infectious diseases spread curves, says study

Photo shows woman using iPhone application of Swedish music streaming service Spotify (AFP via Getty Images) The download pattern for catchy songs resembles the curves drawn by epidemiologists to chart ... Read more »

Nokia G50 review: Our verdict on the brand's £199 5G phone

The G50 is Nokia’s lowest price 5G handset (The Independent) The future of phones is in 5G. The fifth-generation standard for cellular networks, it’s expected that 5G will be used ... Read more »

Dynabook satellite pro C40-H-103 laptop review: A budget model that excels in performance and battery life

At this price you couldn’t ask for a better battery life – expect to get in a full day of work on just one charge (iStock/The Independent ) The satellite ... Read more »

'Throw away your Chinese phone' says Lithuania, after new report reveals built-in censorship tech

Lithuania's defence ministry has advised people to throw away their Chinese smartphones after a new report found that a mobile made by a major brand had built-in censorship capabilities. Lithuania's ... Read more »

Lithuania's defence ministry advises public to throw away Chinese phones due to censorship fears

(AFP via Getty Images) Lithuania has advised its citizens against buying Chinese mobile phones following a government report that the devices had built-in censorship capabilities. The Defence Ministry also recommended ... Read more »

Long COVID: double vaccination halves risk of developing long-lasting symptoms

Studio Romantic/Shutterstock In unvaccinated people, around one in 20 who get symptomatic COVID-19 experience symptoms for at least eight weeks. Around one in 50 have symptoms that drag out for ... Read more »

Greggs unveil new Autumn menu including Vegan Bacon and Sausage Breakfast Rolls

Calling all Greggs fanatics as they’ve just launched their new autumn menu – with a plethora of treats that we can’t wait to get our hands on. Yes there are ... Read more »

Efemérides: Un día como hoy 22 de septiembre se estrena la serie Friends en 1994

© Mundo Efemérides: Un día como hoy 22 de septiembre se estrena la serie Friends en 1994 Un 22 de septiembre de 1994 se estrenó en Estados Unidos la serie ... Read more »

Going on a road trip? Save up nearly 40 percent off Amazon's best-selling travel organizers —but only 'til midnight

We may receive commission from purchases made via links on this page. Pricing and availability are subject to change. © Provided by Yahoo! Lifestyle Keep your stuff organized on the ... Read more »

Legal Experts Spot The Fatal Flaws With Donald Trump's Lawsuit Against His Niece, NYT

Legal experts mocked Donald Trump’s lawsuit against his niece, Mary Trump, The New York Times and three of its reporters on Tuesday and explained why it’s a dud. Trump is ... Read more »

Doctors suffering ‘wave of abuse' over lack of face-to-face appointments

Empty doctor’s waiting room – J Hayward/Alamy Stock Photo The British Medical Association (BMA) says doctors are being subjected to a “wave of abuse” from patients over lack of access ... Read more »

Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall shoots down Noel Gallagher on 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks'

Watch: Jade Thirwall dings Noel Gallagher on Never Mind The Buzzcocks Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall has come out on top after taking a hilarious swipe at Noel Gallagher on music ... Read more »

'Strictly' curse: Ben Cohen's ex-wife regrets publicly insulting Kristina Rihanoff

Ben Cohen with ex-wife Abby in 2003. (Getty Images) Ben Cohen's ex-wife has admitted she regrets publicly lashing out at his Strictly Come Dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff. The former rugby ... Read more »

Joe Biden refuses questions from US reporters as 'aggressive' White House aides interrupt Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a bilateral meeting with the President – Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street President Joe Biden refused to take questions from American reporters before his aides chivvied ... Read more »

World's largest vaccine maker takes 3.9% stake in Oxford Biomedica for £50m

In January, UK prime minister Boris Johnson visited the quality control laboratory of Oxford Biomedica where batches of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are tested. Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/Pool via Reuters The ... Read more »

How LLAMAS could help in fight against Covid

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo Tiny antibodies produced by llamas may help in the fight against Covid, research suggests.  And scientists say the virus-fighting proteins could be given ... Read more »

How green is your food? Eco-labels can change the way we eat, study shows

It’s lunchtime at a workplace cafeteria in Birmingham, and employees returning to work after months away during the coronavirus pandemic are noticing something has changed. Next to the sandwiches and ... Read more »

Bitcoin's flash crash marks brutal sell-off in global markets

The flash crash has not deterred institutional investors. Photo: AP Major cryptocurrencies were down on Wednesday morning as a flash crash in the price of bitcoin earlier this week wiped ... Read more »