The right to a healthful environment was acknowledged in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms1 in 2006. At the time, many wondered whether this right would have some real value and effect or be merely symbolic.
A recent decision by the Court of Appeal, Municipalité de Saint-Luc-de-Vincennes v. Compostage Mauricie Inc.,2 dated February 8, offers some clarification. In this case, the Court of Appeal used the Charter to interpret a contract between a municipality and the operator of a compositing site.
Review of the facts and the Court of Appeal decision
The municipality of Saint-Luc-de-Vincennes (Municipality) appealed a Superior Court judgment that had partially granted its motion for a declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction. The Municipality wanted to stop Compostage Mauricie (Compostage) from treating animal residue on its site.
The issue raised by this appeal was whether the trial judge had erred in concluding that under the terms of a 1995 agreement between the Municipality and Compostage, Compostage could accept any organic input that could be used in producing compost, whether plant or animal.
At trial, the judge had admitted evidence showing that when this agreement was negotiated, the Municipality had expressed concern about environmental quality and the well-being of its residents, and there was no expectation that organic animal matter would ever be involved. Nevertheless, the judge had concluded that the terms of the agreement covered both plant and animal waste.
The Court of Appeal reversed this judgment, stating that the conclusion could not be reconciled with the evidence, which clearly demonstrated that the discussions between the parties had involved composting plant residue only. The Court also held that the organic matter contemplated by the agreement was plant material, not animal, by interpreting the terms of the agreement with the ejusdem generis rule. According to this rule, because the general expression "other organic matter" was preceded by several specific terms, i.e. "residue of pulp and paper, leaves and lawn cuttings," its scope should be limited to organic matter of the same nature as that stated.
In addition, the Court pointed out that even if doubt persisted about the terms of the agreement, preference should not be given to an interpretation contrary to the objective of preserving the environment, a goal to be pursued by all levels of government. The Court of Appeal noted:
Based on this interpretation, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment of the first instance and issued an injunction forcing Compostage to stop receiving and treating residues of animal origin on its site, despite the fact that the company had obtained a certificate of authorization from the Ministère du Développement durable, de l'Environnement et des Parcs allowing it to do so.
It should be noted that the Court invoked the right to a healthful environment in support of its interpretation of a contract entered into in 1995 even though this right was included in the Charter only in 2006, an approach that seems contrary to the usual rules of interpretation. This reference to Section 46.1 of the Charter has to be considered an obiter.
Little has been said so far about Section 46.1 of the Charter, which sets out the right to live in a healthful environment that is respectful of biodiversity.
This section, which appears in Chapter IV "Economic and Social Rights," is not affected by Section 52 of the Charter, which provides that "No provision of any Act, even subsequent to the Charter, may derogate from Sections 1 to 38, except so far as provided by those sections, unless such Act expressly states that it applies despite the Charter." This means that Section 46.1 does not take precedence over other laws or enjoy a special status. The courts do not have the right to overturn laws that are incompatible with the social and economic rights provided for in Chapter IV of the Charter.4
Furthermore, the right to a healthful environment as provided for in Section 46.1 of the Charter exists only to the extent of and in accordance with the standards provided by law. It is thus reasonable to claim that the limits of the right to a healthful environment are specifically those provided for in the Environmental Quality Act,5 an approach that is, moreover, consistent with the definition of the right to environmental quality provided for in Section 19.1 E.L.Q.6
Whatever the real scope of Section 46.1 of the Charter, this Court of Appeal decision illustrates the growing importance the courts attribute to the preservation of the environment. It will be interesting to see how Section 46.1 of the Charter is concretely applied to various matters submitted to the courts in the years to come and how the scope of the provision is defined.
1 R.S.Q., c. C-12, Section 46.1 (Charter).
2 2008 QCCA 235.
3 Idem., para. 46 and 47.
4 Béliveau St-Jacques v. Fédération des employées et employés,  2 C.S.R. 345 and Gosselin v. Québec (Attorney General),  4 C.S.R. 429.
5 R.S.Q. c. Q-2 (hereinafter "E.Q.L.").
6 Section 19.1 of the E.Q.L reads as follows: "19.1. Every person has a right to a healthy environment and to its protection, and to the protection of the living species inhabiting it, to the extent provided for by this Act and the regulations, orders, approvals and authorizations issued under any section of this Act and, as regards odours resulting from agricultural activities, to the extent prescribed by any standard originating from the exercise of the powers provided for in subparagraph 4 of the second paragraph of Section 113 of the Act respecting land use planning and development (chapter A-19.1)." [emphasis added]
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