Charities have made Canada cleaner, healthier and safer but their ability to voice Canadians’ concerns needs to be protected

Canada is a beautiful country. From breathtaking mountains, to pristine lakes to old growth forests, this is a country made for postcards.

But it’s also a complex country with complex challenges. In Canada, charities voice the concerns of Canadians on issues citizens care deeply about from health to income, education to the environment and more. Charities also offer subject matter expertise. Together, this leads to better, stronger laws that make our country a better place to live.

We could write a book about all the different ways Canadian charities have contributed to policy changes that shaped our country for the better, making it safer, cleaner and healthier for Canadians. Here is a short list of the many policy changes that would not have happened without the dedication and hard work of Canadian charities working with all stripes of government and concerned citizens. Consider it a snapshot of the kind of work that is now being put at risk.

Dramatically reducing acid rain in Canada

In the 1980s, the damage caused by acid rain to Canada’s forests and lakes was a source of major concern. The Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, a charitable organization, was instrumental in advocating for the actions that curbed the acid rain crisis. It took a decade of public pressure before the Acid Rain Accord (formally called the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement) was signed in 1991 by Canada and the United States. It was accompanied by amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act.

While much attention focused on securing U.S. action in the 1980s, Canada made important changes too. Seven provinces agreed to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 50 per cent by 1994 from the base year levels of 1980. Significant investment was made by Canada’s federal government to support a transition by heavy industry to technologies that reduced acid rain pollutants.

Fifteen years after the Accord was signed, acid rain dropped by 40 per cent. In Canada, sulfur dioxide emissions decreased by 73 per cent between 1980 and 2010. As a result, the health of many eastern Canada lakes improved significantly and threats to forests decreased.

Laws against drunk driving

Far too many lives have been lost in Canada due to people drinking and driving. But in the past, having a few drinks and driving home wasn’t out of the ordinary and the penalties for doing so were minimal. To save lives, cultural and legal changes were needed. Mothers Against Drinking and Driving (MADD) Canada led the way in educating the public about the dangers of drunk driving and in advocating for stronger policies against impaired driving. Our roads are safer because of this organization’s important work.

Protecting the financial future of children with disabilities

It’s common for parents to wonder about what kind of career their children may have. But what if a child has a disability that will impact her ability to work full-time? In the late 1990s, Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network began working to get policies in place to enable families of children with disabilities to better prepare for their children’s financial future. After years of research and dedicated work, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) was announced in the 2007 federal budget. The RDSP is a powerful long-term savings tool. Not only does money saved in an RDSP not impact disability benefits, the federal government will match up to $3 for each $1 deposited.

Banning chemicals that put holes in the ozone layer

Twenty-five years ago, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came into effect. Signed by 197 countries in 1987, this international treaty was designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion.

And it wouldn’t have happened without environmental charities, such as Friends of the Earth, who educated Canadians about the risks of ozone depletion and were key to securing action on the issue. Ozone depletion leads to increases in UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface. High levels of UV are known to slow plant growth, lead to skin cancers, cataracts and immunosuppressive diseases in humans and animals.

Under the protocol, Canada committed to phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals on a specified timeline. Since the protocol came into effect, the level of ozone-depleting pollutants in the atmosphere has levelled off or decreased. And the ozone layer has started to recover. In Canada, consumption of ozone-depleting substances decreased by nearly 100 per cent.

Providing effective mental health services to young people in Ontario

Being a teenager is never easy. Add in mental health and addictions to the equation and it can become a nightmare for teens and their families. Ten years ago, Children’s Mental Health Ontario informed the development of Ontario’s Child and Youth Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. For nearly a decade, the organization worked to move the issue of children’s mental health up the provincial health agenda. In 2011, the Ontario government pledged significant funding to help support children and young people with mental health and addictions challenges.

Banning cancer-causing chemicals

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a harmful chemical found in many everyday products, including the linings of food and drink cans, cash register receipts, and reusable sports bottles made from hard plastic. More than 150 peer-reviewed scientific studies have found potential health effects from exposure to BPA, which include breast and prostate cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a wide range of developmental problems.

In 2007, Environmental Defence and other environmental charities raised the alarm about BPA and its potential health effects. A year later, Canada announced it would ban BPA from baby bottles. Canada’s decision to become the first country in the world to protect kids from this damaging chemical set off a ripple effect internationally. Many countries, including China, have followed Canada’s lead.

The legacy of Canada’s BPA decision can be seen in the ongoing scrutiny of chemicals, including parabens, phthalates and triclosan, and recent decisions by the world’s largest companies to expel these modern-day pollutants from their inventories.

Protecting the Great Bear Rainforest

British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest is a majestic natural area, which includes valleys, fjords, old growth forests and wilderness streams. Part of the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on the planet, it is home to one of the world’s largest wild salmon populations and rare species like the Spirit Bear.

In the 1990s, the Great Bear Rainforest was threatened by irresponsible logging. Environmental charities like Friends of Clayoquot Sound, Sierra Club and others sounded the alarm. After more than a decade of dedicated effort, the Great Bear Rainforest received a new lease on life. Agreements were signed to protect 6.5 million acres of the rainforest. Laws were introduced requiring “lighter touch” logging, which requires that half of the natural level of old growth forest in the region be maintained. First Nations were key to getting this outcome and sustaining it. Charities and First Nations continue to be active in increasing protection for this exquisite landscape.

Ontario quits coal and dramatically reduces smog days

In 2003, Ontario adopted a policy to completely eliminate coal-fired electricity. This followed significant public pressure led by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a coalition including many environmental charities, in reaction to poor air quality in southern Ontario.

Before the coal phase out, Ontario’s six coal plants produced massive amounts of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Ontario suffered through poor air quality. In 2005, the province had a record 53 smog days. Ontario estimated that each year coal burning contributed to 660 premature deaths, 920 hospital admissions, over 1,000 emergency room visits and 331,000 minor illnesses.

In April 2014, Ontario’s last coal plant was shut down, marking the end of the decade-long coal phase out. This success represented the largest greenhouse gas reduction effort in North America. As a result, air quality in southern Ontario has improved significantly, with only two smog days in 2013 and none in 2014.

Creating networks of national and provincial parks across Canada

In the late ’80s, logging threatened old growth forests like Temagami. Sprawl and industrial development were devouring nature the country. Less than 3 per cent of Canada’s land mass was protected.

WWF-Canada spearheaded the Endangered Spaces campaign, which aimed to increase Canada’s protected areas. A million people signed WWF’s Canadian Wilderness Charter – a manifesto highlighting the campaign’s goals. Hundreds of organizations, from the Girl Guides to the Assembly of First Nations, endorsed the objectives.

By 1992, WWF-Canada had a written commitment from every jurisdiction in the country. Staff at over a dozen conservation groups, including chapters of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, worked to build support for the campaign. Each year, report cards were issued grading jurisdictions on their progress.

By 2000, the Endangered Spaces campaign had conserved a whopping 39 million hectares – created 1,000 new parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves and more than doubling the amount of protected space in Canada. In total, across Canada, more than 93 million hectares of protected area was created.

Charities play a critical role in Canadian society

All of these gains came through Canadians of all stripes working through charities to raise issues and solutions that eventually resulted in government action. As a result, Canada is a safer, cleaner, and better place to live.

But these changes would not have happened if charities were not allowed to participate in public policy. If charities are silenced Canadians will no longer be able to have a voice on issues they care about.

Charities in Canada play an important role in our democratic society. They lead the way by sounding alarms, raising awareness, presenting solutions and advocating for important changes on behalf of Canadians. In this way, charities help to ensure that Canadians pass on a world that we can all be proud of to our children and grandchildren.

Show your support for charities today. Take action here and ensure Canadians continue to have a voice on the issues that matter to them.