Blog: Environment is a Social Justice Issue

Blog by CELA Executive Director, Theresa McClenaghan

We are often asked what the environment has to do with providing legal aid to disadvantaged communities. The environment has always been, and will always be, a social justice issue.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) was one of the first clinics funded in the Ontario legal aid system in the early 1970’s, in response to highly visible and alarming environmental issues that were understood to be disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities. Issues such as pesticides, siting of landfills, air pollution, and water pollution were all recognized to have a disproportionately higher impact on vulnerable communities, resulting in children playing in polluted water, neighbourhoods with elevated asthma and cancer rates, and the intergenerational neurological impact of mercury poisoning. At the time, there was a high level of awareness amongst the public that these were both environmental and social justice issues that needed to be addressed through legislative reform, access to justice, and education.

Unfortunately, over the years the understanding of that intersectionality has waned on the part of too many people. CELA has been pursuing its mandate as a specialty legal aid clinic focused on environmental issues throughout its 50 year mandate, and continues to represent and advocate for the vulnerable communities who remain unfairly impacted by environmental problems.

As we deal with large and small scale tragedies during the COVID-19 pandemic both globally and locally, these issues are being brought to the forefront. Following and below are examples of some of the partnerships, programs and resources that CELA has engaged in and developed, specifically to support vulnerable communities.

This is especially true for Indigenous communities, where water security is made even more critical by the pandemic.  CELA continues to work with Indigenous communities, most recently hosting the Indigenous meeting with the UN Human Rights rapporteur, whose report clearly stated that Indigenous communities are being discrimated against.

In the Thames River Watershed, CELA has partnered with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, the Oneida Nation of the Thames, and the Munsee-Delaware Nation (CMO) to undertaken a collaborative, community-based project to identify threats to source waters and develop legal tools and policy aimed at their protection.

Through programs like RentSafe, partnerships with the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, and the founding of networks such as the Low-Income Energy Network, CELA endeavours to level the playing field so that people who don’t have access to the halls of power can still receive justice.

Child Health and the Environment – Foundational Work at CELA

CELA has undertaken detailed research into children’s environmental health issues for over twenty years. This work has included extensive  secondary research to summarize the scientific evidence about greater risks to children from environmental exposures as well as research and advocacy in many areas of legal and policy analysis.

Our Environmental Standard-Setting and Children’s Health Report involved a detailed review of whether the law adequately protected children. This work led to the creation of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE). CELA has researched, authored, or co-authored many of CPCHE’s publications. This foundational work is gathered here with links provided to many areas of related work. 

RentSafe – A Collaborative Initiative to Address Indoor Environmental Health Risks Affecting Tenants on Low Income in Ontario

RentSafe is an intersectoral initiative, led by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE), of which CELA is a founding partner. It aims to address unhealthy housing conditions affecting tenants living on low income in both urban and rural communities in Ontario. RentSafe arose from a multi-year effort within CPCHE to understand environmental threats to child health and therein, a recognition that toxic exposures often occur indoors and are disproportionately more serious for those living in low-income circumstances. With active involvement of public health, legal aid clinics, municipal property standards/by-law enforcement, and social service sectors as well as housing providers and tenants, RentSafe aims to build awareness and capacity across sectors so that tenants, when faced with mould, pests (and pesticides), lead, radon and other unhealthy housing conditions, are better able to get the support they need.

The RentSafe project evolved from a critical re-think of CPCHE’s conventional knowledge translation and dissemination work. In creating RentSafe, project collaborators sought and prioritized the expertise of people with lived experience as the lens through which project goals and activities are co-created. Rather than starting with ‘expert’ knowledge generated by academics and professionals, our first step in RentSafe was to convene focus groups with 80 tenants in rural and urban communities to learn about their experiences in trying to access the ‘system’ of agencies and institutional supports that so far has largely failed to ensure their right to a decent, healthy and dignified place to call home. From there, a multi-year effort ensued to better understand indoor health issues of greatest concern and the workings and limitations of relevant sectors (reports of the province-wide sectoral surveys available at:

Alongside additional research, and having a more holistic view of various pieces of the intersectoral puzzle, RentSafe has continued to systematically work within and across sectors, with the benefit of insights and guidance provided by RentSafe tenants’ rights advocates, to start to co-create a more integrated, people-centred and proactive system of supports. Ultimately, the goal of RentSafe is to support the right to healthy homes for all. CELA is a founding partner and serves on the RentSafe Project Team. For more information on the project, and many more resources generated through this project please see visit 

Low-Income Energy Network

CELA is a founding member of Low-Income Energy Network (LIEN), a diverse network of organizations and individuals from across Ontario that aims to ensure universal access to adequate, affordable energy as a basic necessity. LIEN promotes programs and policies to address energy poverty and homelessness, reduce Ontario’s contribution to smog and climate change, and promote a healthy economy through the more efficient use of energy, a transition to renewable sources of energy, education, and consumer protection. 

CELA, on behalf of LIEN, brings an equity lens to its advocacy on climate change mitigation and adaptation. There are three pillars to climate change equity: (1) intergenerational equity – fairness between generations, (2) international equity – fairness between states, and (3) national equity – fairness between individuals. CELA argues for targeted programs for low-income communities. In Ontario’s former cap-and-trade program, CELA successfully proposed that the climate change action plan must consider the impact of the regulatory scheme on low-income households and must include actions to assist those households with Ontario’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

CELA has led LIEN advocacy efforts to call for mandatory maximum temperatures in rental accommodation to address urban heat islands in low-income neighbourhoods. Heat islands result from urban built environments that are mostly concrete and which make urban areas much hotter than the surrounding rural countryside. Climate change will make these overheated neighbourhoods more hot, more often. Low-income people have much less access to cooling.

An additional but by no means the final area of CELA’s long history with LIEN has been to develop significant expertise regarding program design for low-income energy retrofit programs, for instance advising the Independent Electricity Systems Operator on program improvements to ensure more low-income people across the province can access free energy retrofit programs.

Source Water Protection in Indigenous Communities – Legal Tool Kits

Since 2017, the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, the Oneida Nation of the Thames, the Munsee-Delaware Nation (CMO) and CELA have undertaken a collaborative, community-based project to identify threats to source waters in the Indigenous communities along the Thames River and, develop legal tools and policy aimed at their protection.