Bob McKeon

October 21, 2013

Ecological issues are very much in the news these days. We read about the latest international report on climate change, debates on proposed bitumen pipelines and oil being shipped across Canada in railway tank cars, and provincial court decisions about the right of environmental groups to be able to attend and speak at public hearings concerning the construction of new oilsands plants.

Too often, especially in Alberta, we enter these debates on the basis of what political party we belong to or what industry we work in. It is easy to forget that recent popes and our Canadian bishops have told us, on many occasions, that our relationship to God's creation is a deep spiritual relationship, or as Pope John Paul II said, the ecological crisis is a moral problem.

The Canadian bishops reminded us of this teaching last January in a statement titled Central Themes on Recent Church Teaching on the Environment.

These official teachings, however, often remain at the level of general ethical principles and it is up to others to "connect the dots" and apply these teachings to bring a Christian moral analysis to the public debates addressing the important ecological concerns of our day.


Many religious orders in North America have made ecological concern a priority in their community life and in their ministries and outreach in Church and society.

The example of the Sisters of Service, an order well known in Western Canada, is especially striking. The Sisters of Services find themselves in a situation of aging members and reduced membership. As it became clear that there would someday be a time when their religious community would no longer be able to continue, they made two important decisions:

  1. To merge with a larger order in order to provide for their remaining sisters, and
  2. To create a charitable foundation that would serve as a multi-generational legacy to continue the charism and spirituality of their community long after the last Sister of Service had died.

This charitable foundation was named the Catherine Donnelly Foundation (CDF), after the foundress of the Sisters of Service. Three focus areas of charitable giving, flowing from the life and witness of Catherine Donnelly and the Sisters of Service, were named: adult education, housing and ecology. The goal was to fund projects that would lead to fundamental social change.


A few years ago, the CDF board made the decision for environmental projects that rather than continuing to fund multiple smaller projects, they would invest substantial funds in a multi-year project on recognizing the right to a clean and safe environment as a basic human right and to advocate to include this right in national and provincial Canadian human rights codes.

More than 100 nations have already included this right in their human rights codes. Canada is among the minority of nations which has not. Significantly, Pope John Paul added his voice to add "the right to a safe environment" to international and national human rights codes as what he calls as part of "third generation of human rights."

The CDF board decided to fund the work of Ecojustice, a Canadian charity that uses the law as a means of protecting the environment. Ecojustice has supported an Ontario court case brought by two aboriginal people from the Aamjiwnaang community, which is close to Sarnia's Chemical Valley, where 40 per cent of Canada's petrochemical industry is located.

This court case challenges the Government of Ontario and Suncor over ongoing pollution which compromises the health of those living in nearby communities. The Ontario Court has agreed to hear this case in 2014.

This case has the potential to be precedent setting across the country because it looks at the cumulative environmental impact of multiple industrial projects in a given area, rather than only looking at impacts separately on a project-by-project basis.


Today, Catholic social teaching speaks of a multigenerational ethic. The Sisters of Service have taken this teaching seriously, and discerned together their future environmental legacy.

Their example can challenge each of us to ask what will be our environmental legacy. Will our descendants be able to enjoy the right to a safe and healthy environment?

(Bob McKeon: