Blog: Approaching CELA’s 50th Anniversary – Back to Basics


As we approach our 50th anniversary, it’s “Back to Basics” for CELA! During our 2016 strategic planning exercise we decided to focus our work on two key themes:

  • Pollution Prevention, Environmental Health and Safety; and
  • Access to Environmental Justice.

While environmental law is becoming increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated, and innovative, we fear based on the experiences of our clients, that some of the basic laws protecting our air and water that CELA has fought for over 50 years to establish and defend, are at risk of being forgotten by environmental agencies and decision makers. We’re not alone in our thinking: shortly after our strategic planning, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario released its report titled “Back to Basics” that said the very same thing, and just a few months ago the provincial government released a draft Environment Plan aimed at refocusing efforts to provide clean air and water.

In addition to these basic environmental protections, we need to keep working on the most pressing and emerging issues as well, such as the role of pesticides in the dramatic decline of insects species, including pollinators, climate change, indoor use of pesticides disproportionately affecting tenants, and new toxic chemicals in our waterways, especially since these issues affect low income and vulnerable communities the most. We cannot do this alone, and so we have also been getting out to communities to ensure they know how to participate in environmental decision making and how to keep their local air and water healthy and safe for both the people and the rest of the ecosystem that lives in the area.

Much of our work is direct legal service, in addition to our important law reform efforts, whether representing clients in hearings or assisting them to respond to local contamination sources. In addition to cases, every day our legal team provides summary advice (i.e., legal advice or other tasks that might take up to two hours of staff time) to people across the province. Widely varied and always interesting, this year we addressed issues such as: the contamination of a mobile home park due to the persistent non-repair of a communal sewage system (where we worked with the community legal aid clinic, ACTO, and Clinic Resource Office); diverse nuisance, noxious odours and noise issues among neighbouring land uses; tree cutting on private/public land; environmental sensitivity in housing; appeals of zoning by-law amendments to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal; asbestos in schools, and many more.

A case in point is our Northern Services program. While for decades we have offered our services to clients across all of Ontario including Northern Ontario, we felt that having a lawyer based in the North would improve our reach and services for the communities across the vast portion of our province “north” of the French River. We have been welcomed with open arms by Northern communities, First Nations, and other community legal clinics, and it has become obvious that there was a huge unmet need for direct, environmental legal services.

With the “Back to Basics” direction from our strategic planning, and our ongoing focus on pollution prevention, environmental health and safety, along with access to justice, watch for us to use the lessons from the Northern Services program for our work in the other regions of Ontario, with our staff already based in eastern, central, and southwestern Ontario. We will be building on our previous efforts such as our highly successful ‘Making the Links’ program, the innovative RentSafe collaboration, and our extensive public legal education program to make sure that communities in those regions are well placed to work on and participate in their local environmental law issues.

We have always prioritized enabling communities, so that they are better placed to protect their local air and water. With a renewed motivation to build on our 50-year history, we look forward to even more years of doing so, even more effectively than ever. First Nations, citizens groups and individual families and residents always teach us a lot about how well environmental laws are working, and where we as a society can do better.

Take a look at our 50th anniversary pamphlet, and if you’ve already worked or volunteered with CELA, please send us your photos or memories to If you haven’t yet connected with CELA, and want to work on your local air and water to ensure pollution is reduced to ensure healthier communities, please reach out! Subscribe to our monthly e bulletin and keep an eye on our website where we post every brief, report, and submission that CELA staff produce, along with much more. Staff are also listed at our website and many resources are available to you there!