Earth Day Turns 50… and so does CELA!

By April Weppler

50 years ago, the legal framework that protected our air, land and water looked very different than it does today.

As CELA and Earth Day both celebrate their 50th anniversaries, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the progress we have made, and to renew our energy and focus for the next 50 years.

CELA got its start in the early 70’s when a group of environmental activists and law professors, young lawyers and articling students gathered in an unused laboratory on the University of Toronto campus to form the Environmental Law Association (the “Canadian” would be added a few years later). 

The goal was to create a public interest law group that could handle the heavy legal slogging for the newly-emerging environmental activists and groups fighting the most egregious polluters, safeguarding air and water quality, and preserving natural resources. In 1978, CELA began to be funded and operated as legal aid clinic specializing in environmental law.

“[We had the idea that we] could use environmental laws to prevent pollution, to improve society and, to the extent that we had any environmental laws in those days, to try to enforce them.”

Over the years, CELA has been instrumental in the development and passage of many of Ontario’s most critical environmental laws, including the Environmental Assessment Act, Environmental Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxics Reduction Act, and Environmental Bill of Rights

Those legal tools did not exist in 1970, and it took considerable lobbying efforts by CELA, other environmental organizations, academics and the public to persuade the Ontario legislature to enact these bedrock statues that now provide the foundation of Ontario’s environmental law framework.

Over the years, CELA fought to improve and strengthen these laws, and has used them on behalf of low-income persons and vulnerable communities in the courts and before tribunals.  For example, CELA has engaged in a series of precedent-setting court cases.

And while these hard-won victories put us miles ahead of where we were in 1970, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.  

While it is a time to celebrate our planet, Earth Day is also a reminder that although there has been much progress on the overall environmental front in Ontario and across Canada, there is still much work to be done. 

For example, Grassy Narrows First Nations marks a more somber 50th anniversary this year; the commercial fishery in Grassy Narrows was closed 50 years ago because of mercury pollution from an upstream paper mill.  Many people in this community suffer mercury poisoning impacts and to date only 8% of the community get compensation.  This unconscionable situation reminds us that the continued environmental injustice in the community still needs to be remedied despite the passage of a half-century.

At the time of writing, dozens of communities – including First Nations – around Ontario are still without adequate legislative protection for their drinking water sources. To date, the protective provisions of the Clean Water Act have largely focused on municipal drinking water sources.

This means that approximately 2 million Ontarians who draw drinking water from non-municipal systems (or municipal systems outside of conservation authority boundaries) receive no mandatory protection under the Clean Water Act. Despite objections by CELA, the Auditor General, and the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, this legislative gap remains unchanged and leaves many Ontarians’ drinking water supplies at risk. 

In addition, too many people in households and schools in Ontario are still drawing drinking water from lead pipes, putting their health at risk – but replacement of lead service pipes is still slow and voluntary. Toxic “hot spots” – such as Sarnia’s Chemical Valley – still suffer the direct and cumulative effects of air pollution from multiple sources, and Ontario’s key pollution prevention statute – the Toxics Reduction Act – is slated for repeal next year. Similarly, the province’s 2018 repeal of our cap-and-trade regime has not been accompanied by other effective and equitable action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario

These continued threats to our air, land and water offer clear evidence that the fight for our environmental rights is not over.  Several of the above-noted laws are threatened by ill-advised rollbacks or repeals, and there are lingering questions about whether the Ontario government has the institutional capacity to enforce these laws in a timely manner.

In many cases, new and amended provisions are needed to ensure that the objectives of these environmental laws are actually being achieved, and that they are protecting us in the way they were intended to do.

Earth Day is an opportunity to not only celebrate our natural environment, but to be reminded of the need for ongoing vigilance and appropriate citizen action.   As we reflect on our shared histories and accomplishments, there is much to be proud of over the past five decades.  

Protecting our environment and safeguarding our most vulnerable communities requires an unwavering commitment by concerned individuals, groups and the public at large. Accordingly, CELA remains energized and committed to continue to champion the health, safety, and environmental interests of Ontarians and Canadians across the country.