Our Constitution protects children from abuse

Today Generation Squeeze is back in court, leading the Intergenerational Climate Coalition. This time we’re in Ontario, where the provincial Court of Appeal is hearing the Government of Ontario challenge the federal Pricing Pollution Act. Premier Doug Ford claims it hurts hockey moms, commuters, and office workers.  

As an organization that represents thousands of average Canadians, Generation Squeeze disagrees. While many of us face serious affordability challenges, our organization knows pricing pollution is not the source of that problem. The source is high costs for housing, child care, postsecondary, transit, etc. — especially since young people’s earnings have stagnated over the last four decades. The more we reduce these costs, the better we position younger Canadians to afford the adaptations required to reduce climate change.

But there’s a bigger principle at play. Failure to price pollution abuses children and future generations by putting their health in jeopardy.

Our Constitution forbids this.   

Canadian jurisprudence includes a number of constitutional principles, including democracy, federalism and the protection of minorities. These principles function symbiotically, shaping interpretation of the Constitution.

In court the Ontario government will invoke federalism in its fight against a minimum national price on pollution (claiming it contravenes “the division of powers” between Ottawa and the provinces), and the principle of “no taxation without representation”. But this principle must be considered alongside the commitment to protect the generations that will suffer the effects of our decisions to pollute today without having the right to participate in them.

Children and future generations are quintessential “minorities” for which our Constitution enshrines protection, because they cannot rely on majoritarian politics to respect their rights and interests.

The reality is that youth and future generations are legally disabled from participating in politics because they are prohibited from voting. While they have no say in the decisions that determine our greenhouse gas emissions, science shows they will be bear the heaviest environmental, economic, and health burdens from those decisions.

The very act of making a constitution presumes future generations: they must exist to inherit, and in turn, maintain a way of life anchored by the values and principles adopted by their predecessors. Alas, climate change puts that future in serious jeopardy. The World Health Organization identifies climate change as the greatest risk to human health, threatening the conditions required for today’s youth and future generations to thrive.

When working to unite Canada, our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, encouraged citizens to “reject” Confederation “if you do not believe it to be for the present advantage and future prosperity of yourselves and your children.”

It would be perverse if our Constitution is now used 150 years later to defeat that deep and founding concern for future generations, by frustrating efforts to combat climate change.

Section 15 of the Charter of Rights confirms this deep concern by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age. As the Supreme Court of Canada notes in its decision re: Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v Canada, children are vulnerable members of society with a critical need for a safe environment. In Baker v. Canada, the Supreme Court adds that, “Children’s rights, and attention to their interests, are central humanitarian and compassionate values in Canadian society.”

The Government of Canada reinforced our national commitment to these values by signing onto the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enshrines the right of the child to the highest standard of health (article 24). The UN committee established to monitor the implementation of the Convention concurs that climate change is one of the biggest threats to children’s health, and emphasizes that, “States should, therefore, put children’s health concerns at the centre of their climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.”

Alas, we fail to put children’s health concerns at the centre of our plans so long as pollution is free. Rather than resist pricing pollution, we should embrace pricing it with pride, because it will mark our commitment to end unwarranted environmental abuse of children and future generations.

The economics are clear. Price signals matter to almost all of us, so pricing pollution can shape our behaviour and attitudes, incentivizing us to pollute less. There is also serious money to be saved or made as we adapt, especially for individuals and companies who adapt early and innovatively.

But regardless of costs or the amount of money to be made, Canada is not a country that tolerates abuse of children. It’s time to recognize pollution is now among the greatest harm we can inflict on children and future generations — and that abuse will only grow so long as we tolerate pollution being free.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is a professor in the UBC School of Population Health, and Founder of Generation Squeeze – a voice for younger Canada in politics and the market, backed by cutting-edge research.

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