In 2001 a unanimous judgement by the Supreme Court of Canada gave municipalities an important role to play in environmental protection. That judgement gave municipalities both the power and the responsibility to protect local environments. The Supreme Court empowered municipalities to exceed, but not to lower, national norms for environmental protection.
The case that produced this judgement was a suit against the municipality of Hudson, Quebec challenging a municipal bylaw prohibiting the use of pesticides for non-essential purposes. The Court rejected the suit against the municipality and this judgement constitutes a major improvement in Canada’s environmental law.
The Court’s rationale for the judgement was that municipal governments are best able to respond to specific local geographic issues, an argument long held by many municipal councils.

No longer can municipalities avoid effective action by telling citizens that municipalities do not have the power to take action because the province constrains their powers. The Supreme Court held that all provincial and territorial legislation allows municipalities to make bylaws for the general health and welfare of their citizens. All provinces and territories are equally empowered but Quebec and Nova Scotia have now made this power explicit in provincial legislation.
The Court’s judgement does more than just empower municipalities to regulate environmental protection. The judgement endorsed the ‘precautionary principle’ and thus it also explicitly gives local government the responsibility to act without undue delay. As articulated in international law, this principle says: where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
With these new powers and responsibilities, municipal governments need assistance from local environmental scientists and other informed residents who can provide valuable support for council decisions. Larger municipalities already have Environmental Advisory Committees that should be guided by the Hudson decision. In the many small municipalities without EAC’s, citizens with well-founded knowledge should come forward and help the municipality in fulfilling its responsibility to protect the environment. (See www. for a list of EAC’s and a handbook on how they work.)
Decisions on environmental issues commonly will demand social, economic and ecological knowledge. Cooperative input in all these areas will become increasingly vital in supporting municipal councils.

For more discussion of the effects of law and policy on the Canadian environment, see David Boyd’s 2003 book Unnatural Law from the UBC press (ISBN 0-7748-1049-1).

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