Happy spring. Time to celebrate the vernal equinox by welcoming some budding shoots of progress on Indigenous rights, environmental rights and climate action. As the sun crossed the equator heading north last week, the spotlight fell on UBC faculty at the heart of six note-worthy developments: two global, three national and one local. 

At the global level, the United Nations recruited two UBC faculty to provide advice on critical human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Council appointed UBC political science professor Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot as a member of the UN expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,which advises member states on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Professor Lightfoot will be the first Indigenous Canadian woman on this UN expert panel and pledged, “…to make Indigenous human rights into reality on the ground.”  

The UN Human Rights Council also extended the appointment of UBC professor Dr. David Boyd as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment for a second three-year term. Professor Boyd‘s latest UN report involved a research-a-thon of over 500 examples of good practices by states on the right to a healthy environment. Both Professor Boyd and his predecessor issued reports on the links between human rights and climate change.

To put these appointments into context, one of the most fundamental achievements of the United Nations is a comprehensive body of universal human rights law. The UN currently calls on 80 individuals from around the world to act as special rapporteurs, independent experts, or working group members with considerable influence. Now UBC has two professors serving in this capacity at the same time – an outstanding testament to our depth of talent – and an opportunity to ensure the issues of climate justice and Indigenous rights remain front of mind at the very highest tables.

On the national scene, climate action also took a leap forward. The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) confirmed that the federal government has the constitutional power to set a national carbon price to address climate change which, “…poses a grave threat to humanity’s future.” The SCC upheld the constitutionality of the federalGreenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, the GGPPA, in a split decision. The Court ruled that Parliament has jurisdiction to enact this law as a matter of national concern under the “Peace, Order, and good Government” clause of Canada’s Constitution. Greenhouse gases are pollutants that cause serious extra-provincial harm; and as each province alone is unable to fully address climate change, national action is required. 

Beyond the eye-catching headlines, the 400+ page judgment also confirmed a number of uncontested facts, including that climate change is real and caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities and that it threatens the ability of Indigenous communities in Canada to sustain themselves and maintain their traditional ways of life. The judgment states: "There is also a broad consensus that carbon pricing is a critical measure for the reduction of GHG emissions. This matter is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world." 

In case you missed it, there is a key UBC connection to the case. The Court cites an article [1] by UBC Associate Professor of Political science Gerald Baier – who tweeted his delight at being cited, “…in the most important federalism case in recent memory.” Baier was also interviewed by the CBC, adding to commentary by a number of UBC experts in the media.

A second national development was progress with Canada’s first bill on environmental racism – An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism – moved closer to becoming the law after passing a second reading in the House of Commons. The bill will require the government to develop a national strategy help redress the harm caused by environmental racism; including measures to collect data relating to the location of environmental hazards, and negative health outcomes in affected communities. 

One of the advocates supporting the bill is Professor Ingrid Waldron of Dalhousie University, who gave a  recent guest lecture at the Allard School of Law Re-Thinking Waste: Mapping Racial Geographies of Violence on the Colonial Landscape, and also spoke at UBC last November about the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project (The ENRICH Project). Stay tuned for related work from UBC – in this case a UBC Sustainability Scholar – that maps environmental racism experiences by racialized and Indigenous communities in BC.

In a third national story, the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE) unveiled a new tool called Good Score which maps the environmental quality of Canada’s urban streets using measurements of air quality, street greenery, amenities, transit and recreation. Professors Michael Brauer and Kim McGrail from UBC’s School of Population and Public Health are two of the project’s directors. This story has strong local implications. See Professor Brauer and colleagues interactive storymaps of climate change-related health vulnerabilities in B.C. communities here.\

The Good Score tool was produced, “…so people can create evidence and stories that will illustrate inequity,” said CANUE’s managing director. Neighbourhoods with lower scores are often home to racialized communities, may be close to environmental hazards, and residents often experience health effects such as poor mental health, cancer, asthma, diabetes, and low birth weights. As the website notes, “With 9 out of 10 Canadians expected to be urban dwellers by 2050, there is an immense opportunity to (re)design cities in ways that improve wellbeing and reduce health inequalities.”

Finally, a local story is a vivid illustration of how the issues of Indigenous rights, environmental rights, and climate action intersect and show up at UBC's doorstep by way of the Fraser River. The title of a new study published last week by UBC professor Scott Hinch says it all: “Exceptionally high mortality of adult female salmon: a large scale pattern and a conservation concern.” 

The Fraser River is one of the world's most productive river systems, sustaining Indigenous people since time immemorial. Climate change compounds threats to wild salmon, already hit hard by pollution and habitat loss. The importance of salmon to Indigenous peoples can’t be overstated. Chief Wayne Sparrow of the Musqueam Nation has spoken of the suffering salmon populations, warning last fall, “I’m hoping the department will do something. Or else, we will be telling our grandkids that there used to be salmon in the Fraser River. I don’t think it’s too late, but we’re at five minutes to midnight.”

Fortunately, a number of UBC experts are working hard to protect the Fraser. At the Centre for Indigenous Fisheries, Dr. Andrea Reid, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Fisheries and citizen of the Nisga’a Nation, is co-developing a bio-cultural framework for fish habitat and water assessment with Lower Fraser First Nations. Dr. Tara Martin is collaborating on a threat management assessment for Fraser River species. Kees Lokman leads the Living with Water project with colleague Maggie Low and a team of people including West Coast Environmental Law. With $1 million in PICS funding, the project will develop new planning, design, and decision-making tools to prepare for climate change and sea level rise on BC’s South Coast, including the Fraser estuary. Many more UBC community members are contributing vital research and study.

UBC’s promise is to inspire people, ideas and actions for a better world. Hallmarks of the university are its commitment to climate action and Indigenous human rights. The UBC Sustainability Initiative’s  Climate Justice Series and the UBC Climate Hub’s Climate Solutions Showcase – in association with partners including the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions – have been exploring these issues this month. Last week’s news shows clearly how deeply UBC is involved in these issues.

Seen an important sustainability story this month? Get in touch, and I look forward to adding it to my April reading list.

- Linda

Linda Nowlan, Senior Director
The UBC Sustainability Initiative


[1] The Court cited his article  “Tempering Peace, Order and Good Government: Provincial Inability and Canadian Federalism” (1998), 9 N.J.C.L. 277 in paragraph 156 of the judgment.