The Faces of CELA: Michelle LaFortune

What is your role and how long have you been involved with CELA?
I’ve been a longtime subscriber to CELA’s monthly bulletin, but I’m relatively new to the organization. I started in early May as a legal summer student funded through the Donner Civic Leadership Fund at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. This summer I will be working at CELA researching how local laws and policies are serving (or not serving) the needs of vulnerable communities when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change.

What inspired you to get involved in environmental law and public policy?
I grew up as a Canadian expat and the natural world always played a significant role in my connection to my home country. I was always immensely proud of our freshwater, forests, and wildlife.

As I grew up, I had to reconcile my romanticized childhood version of Canada with the reality of our imperfections, in particular Canada’s reliance on resource extraction, often undertaken at the expense of Indigenous communities and other disproportionately impacted groups.

International human rights law has thus far provided the main lens through which I’ve approached this learning. So I’m very excited for the opportunity to spend the summer at CELA diving into these issues through the lens of domestic law and local impact.

What’s the most rewarding part of working/volunteering with CELA?
In my short time with CELA I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the most passionate and experienced environmental lawyers around. It is an unmatched opportunity to hear about their journeys as I explore what role I can play in the fight for environmental justice and accountability.

Also, I’ve appreciated how much CELA’s mission and method dispel a lot of negative preconceptions about stereotypical environmental activism, which can sometimes come across as uncompromising and disrespectful of impacted communities’ realities or cultural identities.

What do you think is Canada’s biggest environmental challenge today?
An obvious answer is climate change, but more specifically, I think it is key to overcome the lack of agency individuals feel towards climate issues. At this point we are mainly beyond the classical denial of climate change but there is still an issue of people thinking the effects are off in the future instead of here and now. Alternatively, others who accept the existence of climate impacts often feel like things are beyond hope. Either way, tackling climate change can feel insurmountable. Nevertheless, responding to climate change will take all of us, and everyone needs to feel as if they can make a positive impact.

How do you think we can best approach this challenge?
A key part of overcoming this fatalism is giving individuals a pathway to express themselves where their opinions are listened to and respected. Environmental laws with public participation mechanisms are one such instrument. If we feel like our opinions as individuals can truly influence decision markers, we are more likely to believe we can turn things around.

If you were the Leader of the World, what environmental law or policy would you implement?
Today Canada is one of the few countries that does not domestically recognize its citizens’ right to a healthy environment. It is past time for Canada to recognize each individual’s right to a clean and healthy environment in a way that empowers us all to be responsible for the earth. 

When you’re not working on Great Lakes issues, what do you like to do?
I’m always looking for opportunities to grow and push my limits. Right now, during the pandemic, that has meant becoming a voracious podcast listener – much of my time during the coronavirus crisis has been passed listening to the voice of Arshy Mann from Canadaland’s show “Commons”. When not under quarantine measures, I’m typically out exploring and spending time with friends and family.