In confronting challenges, Canadians tend to try friendly approaches and collaborative efforts first before considering litigation. There can be a due to the prevailing sense that if urgent action is required, governments will do what’s needed.
But what if this trust turns out to be misplaced? Where can Canadians find support for galvanizing action, for example, when ongoing environmental degradation inspires disillusionment or even despair?
With its climate defender’s mantle, Ecojustice is poised to help in such circumstances.
“More and more Canadians believe We're running out of time in the context of the climate crisis, and many realize that we need to force government and industry to do what's right,” says Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice. “And that can require litigation.”
Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for a healthy environment. During its 30-plus year history, its strategic, public-interest lawsuits and advocacy have led to precedent-setting court decisions and improved laws that address urgent environmental issues in Canada.
A current example is the youth-led lawsuit, Mathur et. al v. Her Majesty in Right of Ontario. This lawsuit, launched by Ecojustice on behalf of seven youth, alleges that when the Ontario government rolled back the province’s climate targets, it violated young Canadians’ rights to life, liberty and security.
“When the Doug Ford government came into power, it weakened Ontario's climate legislation,” says Page. “We believe this also breached the right to be treated equally. Since the politicians, who are adults, failed to act appropriately, youth today will bear the disproportionate burden of the changing climate.”
Ontario’s weaker target will allow more greenhouse gas emissions to be emitted, fueling dangerous climate change-related impacts such as heatwaves, floods, fires, and poor air quality that threaten the quality of life of Canadians — today and in generations to come.
A key driver of climate change is overconsumption, notes Page.
“We take more from the Earth than it can give, and we dispose of more than it can absorb. This ultimately leads to ever-increasing environmental degradation.”
He advocates for two courses of action: One, that Canadians adopt more sustainable lifestyles; and two, that politicians prioritize making sustainable lifestyles and responsible industries requirements.
“Industry uses every tool to maximize revenue generation, regardless of the environmental impact,” says Page. “And the market currently doesn’t require Canadian companies to behave in an environmentally-friendly manner.”
Activists – and especially youth – are responding with a push for climate action, he adds.
“We see young people taking to the streets, from climate marches in Montreal to Fairy Creek blockades on Vancouver Island. They understand what's at stake, and they’re not intimidated by the RCMP or the courts.”
A sea change in awareness has also affected Ecojustice, which is now Canada’s largest environmental law charity, with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax. It started in 1990 with Steward Elgie, a young Canadian lawyer, who led a high-profile legal battle to hold Exxon and the Canadian government accountable when 35,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound.
The question of who would be nature’s lawyer in Canada inspired the creation of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, now Ecojustice, which takes on litigation and advocacy targeting issues like fish farming, old-growth logging, coal mining, oil and gas extraction, and pesticide use. and more.
“We’ve grown from one to 30 lawyers. We currently have litigation in five provinces and case development in seven provinces and at least one territory,” says Page. “We’re making a difference, and that's why people invest in us.”
Climate change is a “hair-on-fire emergency,” Page says. Two Canadian courts have already ruled that evidence supports the “climate crisis” characterization. This in itself represents a significant shift.
“Twenty years ago, judges were less educated about the environment and less sympathetic to our position,” he says. “Now, there is recognition that our organization is often better informed than the industry, which typically presents a one-sided view.”
Resulting benefits include better legal and environmental outcomes on the ground, as well as “evidence being tested and confirmed in court proceedings,” says Page.
“Climate science has been clear for years. Acknowledging that this is an emergency in black and white in court judgments changed the narrative of how politicians, lobbyists and the media talk about environmental degradation in Canada.”
Now the challenge is for “every citizen and every political leader to start behaving accordingly and making decisions that ensure we live within our planet's means.”
Ecojustice is featured in the 2021 Environmental Excellence in B.C. magazine.