By Reya Shreya Rai

Toxic mining practices near the Métis Nation settlement in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. Industrial facilities polluting financially challenged neighbourhoods in Mexico City. The lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. These are a few examples of how environmental injustice has impacted North American communities.

With these issues in mind, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is presenting the 31st annual Council Session and Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC) from June 24 to June 26, 2024, in Wilmington, North Carolina. The theme for this year’s event is “Strengthening Environmental Justice through Community Empowerment.” The theme underscores the importance of addressing environmental inequalities and empowering communities to participate in environmental decision-making processes.

The CEC was established in 1994 by Canada, Mexico, and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). Its primary objective is to address environmental issues of continental concern, promote trilateral cooperation, and support sustainable development across North America. The CEC acts as a forum for discussion, collaboration, and action on environmental challenges, focusing on areas such as air quality, biodiversity, climate change, and environmental justice.

The CEC events aim to bring together a diverse group of participants, including environmental officials, advocates, Indigenous leaders, community activists, experts, and youth. This week’s sessions will build a platform to discuss critical environmental justice issues in North America, share experiences and best practices, and identify strategies to promote equity and inclusivity in environmental governance.

Engaging citizens for a comprehensive approach to sustainable development 

The first-day discussions focused on environmental justice, highlighting the intersections of environmental justice, corporate accountability, and immigration. Guest speakers emphasized the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to environmental justice, prioritizing equity and fairness in decision-making. They discussed the importance of collaboration, transparency, and citizen engagement to promote sustainable development and environmental justice in North America.

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Speakers also addressed the challenges and limitations of enforcing environmental laws and policies and the devastating effects of the tar sands industry on the environment and Indigenous communities. Overall, they emphasized the need for advocacy and policy changes to ensure a just energy transition while addressing environmental justice issues.

Moderator Jorge Daniel Taillant, CEC Executive Director and Erika Hernández Mariaca, Co-founder of Collective Cuentepec Tosepan.

The opening ceremony featured welcoming remarks and a keynote presentation. The speakers highlighted the significance of the CEC’s 30-year history of environmental cooperation and its evolving role in addressing contemporary environmental challenges across North America. They also emphasized the importance of integrating environmental justice principles into policymaking and fostering collaboration among governments, civil society, and Indigenous communities.

The first panel focused on legal and policy instruments to access and implement environmental justice in North America. Speakers discussed the existing legislative frameworks in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., emphasizing the need for robust laws that uphold environmental rights and protect marginalized communities. They highlighted successful case studies where policy interventions have improved environmental outcomes and promoted social equity.

Indigenous Peoples at the forefront of biodiversity conservation

Indigenous leaders emphasized the critical roles of Indigenous Peoples in climate action and environmental stewardship across North America. They highlighted their communities’ longstanding relationship with the land and the profound impacts of climate change on their livelihoods and cultures. Speakers underscored the importance of recognizing Indigenous knowledge systems and practices in informing sustainable environmental management strategies.

Discussions also addressed the need for meaningful inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in policymaking and environmental governance to achieve equitable and effective climate solutions. They underscored the imperative of honouring Indigenous rights, fostering genuine partnerships, and integrating traditional ecological knowledge to address climate change comprehensively and ethically.

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“Indigenous youth are key to environmental conservation efforts. Their deep connection to the land drives their commitment to protecting our natural resources,” said Paolo Solano, director of Legal Affairs and Submissions on Enforcement Matters (SEM) at the CEC.

Initiatives and collaborative efforts to advance environmental justice

Representatives from the U.S. National and Governmental Advisory Committee provided a report about ongoing initiatives and collaborative efforts to advance environmental justice within the North American context. The report underscored the role of advisory committees in advising policymakers and promoting public participation in environmental decision-making.

Another panel explored community mobilization efforts and the challenges faced in advancing environmental justice. Speakers shared grassroots initiatives aimed at empowering local communities and advocating for environmental rights. They discussed strategies for building inclusive coalitions, fostering direct communication, and mobilizing public support for environmental justice initiatives.

Facilitating dialogue on trilateral cooperation 

An open dialogue session on opportunities for trilateral cooperation on environmental justice offered participants a pivotal platform to share environmental challenges across North America and explore collaborative approaches to address them. They highlighted the importance of cross-border partnerships, knowledge sharing, and capacity building to achieve environmental justice goals at the regional level.

“Collaboration among governments, civil society, and industry is essential for addressing complex environmental challenges effectively,” said Bob Perciasepe, senior adviser to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator.

The deliberations highlighted the pressing relevance of environmental justice as a paramount development issue of our era. Speakers emphasized the necessity for systemic reforms, policy adaptations, and community-centred strategies to redress long-standing patterns of marginalization, discrimination, and environmental injustice.

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“Environmental justice cannot be achieved without addressing social inequalities. It’s about ensuring that all communities have access to a healthy environment,” shared Diandra Marizet Esparza, executive director of Intersectional Environmentalist.

Environmental justice advocacy paves the way for Bill C-226 

The discussions at #CEC31 underscored the critical importance of inclusive policy development, community engagement, and equitable access to environmental resources. These themes resonate directly with the objectives of Bill C-226 recently passed in Canada.

Bill C-226, known as “An Act Respecting the Development of a National Strategy to Assess, Prevent and Address Environmental Racism and to Advance Environmental Justice,” was welcomed by Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change. The legislation aims to develop a comprehensive national strategy to combat environmental racism and promote environmental justice across Canada.

By fostering collaboration and sharing best practices, #CEC31 facilitated discussions that are crucial for effectively addressing environmental justice issues identified in Bill C-226.

The outcomes from this event are poised to help shape policy reforms and inspire community-driven initiatives, fostering a more resilient and equitable environmental governance framework across the continent. Stay tuned for highlights from the rest of the event.

To view the complete CEC31 agenda, click here:

North American environmental leaders to convene for CEC31

Reya Shreya Rai is an editorial intern for Environment Journal. She is a writer and a student of Contemporary Journalism at Centennial College. 

Featured image credit: Getty Images


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