Blog: Faces of CELA, Sara Shams

What is your role and how long have you been involved with CELA?

In May, I joined CELA as a legal summer student funded through the University of Ottawa’s Public Interest Fellowship. This summer, I will be working on creating a municipal toolkit on climate change and equity policies. Often, the most vulnerable groups face the brunt of climate change impacts yet many policies fail to address the needs of these groups. I’m very excited to work on this issue at CELA – an organization I look up to and which strongly aligns with my values.

What inspired you to get involved in environmental law and public policy?

I think my passion and appreciation for the environment stemmed from watching countless Planet Earth documentaries when I was younger. It led to my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, where I quickly realized that while scientific research, particularly surrounding climate change, is invaluable, policies must reflect this research to influence real environmental change. After graduation, I worked in the environmental division of a municipality on waste management policy, yet I found I needed more tools to drive serious environmental change. This led me to a law degree, which I hope to use to help shape policies that not only safeguard our environment, but those who rely on it, particularly vulnerable communities.

What’s the most rewarding part of working/volunteering with CELA?

The passion! Everyone at CELA is so engaged in their work, which is truly inspiring and solidifies my desire to work in public interest environmental law. I look forward to learning more from the renowned group of environmental lawyers I get to call my co-workers this summer. Moreover, staff and other students are so welcoming at CELA. CELA additionally holds excellent learning opportunities for students, such as weekly lunch and learns. Overall, my experience at CELA will help me immensely on my path towards advocating for environmental justice.

What do you think is Canada’s biggest environmental challenge today?

The obvious answer is climate change. However, I think this stems from our consumeristic ways of life and growth-driven economic model. Growth is not always the answer, especially when so many planetary boundaries are exceeded and at the expense of marginalized communities.

How do you think we can best approach this challenge?

To address this challenge, I believe governments should be required to seriously listen and incorporate the needs of impacted stakeholders into climate change policies. Whether projects are undertaken and policies implemented should be determined collaboratively with the communities. This should transcend to all levels of government – from municipal to provincial to federal. We also need to question our world-views, where our values come from, and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into our policy-making.

If you were the Leader of the World, what environmental law or policy would you implement?

I would require all countries to implement a circular economy model across all industries and sectors. If a certain project can’t embrace this model, then I wouldn’t allow it. Of course this is very strict, but I assume a Leader of the World can do this!

When you’re not working on environmental issues, what do you like to do?

I love eating and cooking! I consider myself lucky to be in one of the most diverse cities in the world, where I am constantly inspired by food and the people who make it. I also love biking around the city, going to parks, and spending time with loved ones. Before the pandemic, I would have also gone to my local rock climbing gym and done pottery classes. I can’t wait to start that part of life again.