A Look Back at CELA’s 50th Anniversary Year

Warm Holiday Greetings from CELA

A year-in-review blog post by Theresa McClenaghan, CELA’s Executive Director and Counsel

In a profoundly different year than anyone expected, we have been able to continue CELA’s critical work thanks to our talented and dedicated staff, Board, volunteers, students, collaborative partnerships, and an increasing number of supporting donors to the CELA Foundation.

We began the year with high hopes of celebrating our 50th anniversary with hundreds of supporters. Despite putting in-person events on hold (for now – watch for announcements of a new date in late 2021!), we have been able to respond to the changed circumstances brought about by the pandemic, as staff have worked remotely on casework, law reform advocacy and supporting our public legal education work through an increased number of valuable webinars.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the significant inequities in our society, often mirrored in the disproportionate health and environmental impacts experienced by low-income, disadvantaged, and vulnerable communities. In addressing climate change or air and water pollution, CELA’s work is fundamentally about environmental equity, helping communities participate in environmental decisions that affect them, and striving for better tools and laws to protect environmental health and well-being.

Looking back on CELA’s 50th year, we are excited to share highlights of our work in our 2020 Annual Report.

Examples of our cases this year (view many more casework profiles online) include working with several First Nations communities to enable their legal rights and jurisdiction, including impact assessments for Ring of Fire proposals in the Far North, and a precedent-setting environmental justice case under Canada’s new Impact Assessment Act, relating to a proposed natural gas pipeline.

Additional casework to protect local drinking water supplies continued across Ontario with representation of citizens’ groups responding to threats from proposed quarries, landfills, or waste processing facilities. In the longest running case in CELA’s history, we’ve represented clients for over 21 years in Tyendinaga Township, allied with the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, to fight groundwater impacts from mega-landfills.

We are participating in Canada’s first ever federal environmental assessment of a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) raising concerns about this dirty, dangerous and distracting proposed “solution” to climate change. Allied with many groups across the country, we are calling on the federal government to support renewable generation technologies that are socially acceptable, cost effective and scalable now.

Another precedent-setting case involves our intervention before the Supreme Court of Canada on the constitutional validity of federal carbon pricing legislation. CELA is intervening in this case to protect the rights of vulnerable communities from the effects of climate change by ensuring the courts confirm federal jurisdiction to act in order to protect the environment.

A significant theme for CELA’s law reform advocacy this year has been addressing the rollback of Ontario’s environmental laws including numerous changes to the rules for land use planning and environmental assessment. These changes create overlap between our law reform advocacy and casework since we have mounted two court challenges (see: proposed waste facility in Simcoe Forest and judicial review of Bill 197) to some of these poor environmental decisions that undermine key tools for ensuring environmental justice for CELA’s clients (and all members of the public) – regardless of socioeconomic status.

Additional law reform work this year addressed disproportionate impacts on vulnerable communities from issues including water and wetland protection, energy poverty, tenants’ rights and healthy housing, and emergency preparedness and nuclear waste.

Extensive work continued on the regulation of pesticides, the need to ban single-use plastics and improve plastic recycling and waste management, and advocacy for reform of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). CELA is advocating that Canada strengthen CEPA to reduce exposure to toxic substances, advance environmental rights, and add obligations to protect vulnerable populations.

Across all of this work we joined with Canada’s leading environmental organizations in calling for a green and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we look ahead to 2021, much of this work will continue as we fulfill our core mandate as a legal aid clinic to represent clients before tribunals and in the courts, conduct legal analysis and advocate for law reform to address systemic environmental inequities, and provide outreach and public legal education helping communities to participate in the decisions that affect them.

We will continue to use, test and advance legislative or regulatory tools under environmental protection statutes. In particular, we hope to achieve a better system to regulate cumulative effects of pollution emissions in Ontario that disproportionately impact low-income persons and vulnerable communities. Tools available under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights are particularly helpful to our clients, such as the right to request an investigation or the right to request a review of a law, regulation, policy or instrument.

New challenges for 2021 at the federal level, with important implications for Ontario and CELA’s clients, include ensuring implementation of the federal Throne Speech commitments to pass a new climate accountability law and establish a Canada Water Agency, the latter critical to improving Great Lakes protections and ensuring national water monitoring of pesticides and other toxic substances. We will also continue to advocate for environmental protection as a legally enforceable human right, including in the contexts of First Nations’ safe drinking water and local environments.

For much more detail, please review our Annual Report. We are grateful for your continued support of our work and look forward to continuing to protect your health and environment for the next 50 years.