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The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a municipal bylaw banning the use of pesticides is constitutional, thereby dismissing an appeal by two lawn-spraying companies, Spraytech and Chemlawn, that challenged a bylaw passed by Hudson, Quebec, a town of 5,400 located west of Montreal.

With almost 4.5 million Canadians claiming ownership of a lawn or garden in 1999 and admitting to herbicide and insecticide use during 1998, this decision is taking a swipe at big business while it brings new regulatory power to the grassroots level.

The Supreme Court ruling highlights growing concern over pesticides and the other chemicals to which Canadians expose themselves and their children. What began as an undercurrent of environmental wariness has developed into a national concern, as recognized by the Supreme Court in a 1995 statement: "Everyone is aware that individually and collectively, we are responsible for preserving the natural environment...environmental protection [has] emerged as a fundamental value in Canadian society."

Borrowing the definition used in Hudson's Bylaw 270, "pesticides" means "any substance, matter or micro-organism intended to control, destroy, reduce, attract or repel, directly or indirectly, an organism which is noxious, harmful or annoying for a human being, fauna, vegetation, crops or other goods or intended to regulate the growth of vegetation, excluding medicine or vaccine." In the U.S., pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer by the National Cancer Institute.

Hudson's by-law does not completely ban pesticides, but instead takes a health-promotion approach and restricts use to situations where pesticide application is "not purely an aesthetic pursuit."

Hudson and the pesticide-reduction movement are backed by an impressive array of nonprofit and environmental groups, including: The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Nature-Action Quebec Inc., World Wildlife Fund Canada, Sierra Club of Canada, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Parents' Environmental Network, Healthy Lawns -- Healthy People and the Breast Cancer Prevention Coalition. Other municipalities, including 37 Quebec centres and Halifax, Nova Scotia, are also using by-laws to restrict pesticide use.

Although pesticide management is an important issue, the Supreme Court recognized that its ruling has a greater significance: "The case arises in an era in which matters of governance are often examined through the lens of the principle of subsidiarity. This is the proposition that law-making and implementation are often best achieved at a level of government that is not only effective, but also closest to the citizens affected and thus most responsive to their needs, to local distinctiveness, and to population diversity."

In this precedent-setting appeal, the two lawn-care companies argued that Hudson had overstepped its jurisdiction when it restricted the use of pesticides. However, the highest court in Canada ruled that as long as a bylaw doesn't contradict federal and provincial legislation, municipalities do not need permission to regulate their local environments with bylaws and policies.

Not everyone sees this regulatory shift as progress.

The Crop Protection Institute (CPI), a nonprofit trade association representing manufacturers, developers and distributors of "plant life science solutions" which include pesticides and biotechnology, feels increased regulatory power at the municipal level will not necessarily benefit Canadian property owners.

"This decision raises serious questions of public policy," says CPI President Lorne Hepworth. "Every province will have to examine its own legislation to determine if they want their municipalities to make decisions about critical health and safety issues that are better left to federal and provincial governments who have more resources to draw on. Individuals should not be denied the benefits of pesticides based on political science rather than sound science...This decision by the Supreme Court will create the need for every province to clarify jurisdiction with their municipalities -- who will have the power, and what it will mean to Canadians."

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