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Reflections on Gord Downie’s Green Legacy

I have my hands in the river
My feet up on the banks
Looked up to the Lord above
And said hey man thanks.

“New Orleans is Sinking”, The Tragically Hip (1989)

In the days after Canadian icon Gord Downie passed away, numerous heart-felt tributes praising Gord were expressed across the country by the Prime Minister, politicians, musicians, First Nations representatives, and countless other persons from all walks of life.

This widespread outpouring of love and appreciation for Gord often focused on his various artistic endeavours over the years. He was also properly commended for his passionate championing of important social, health and indigenous causes, including reconciliation with First Nations communities.

At CELA, we share these views, and we extend our deepest condolences to Gord’s family and friends. At the same time, we draw some comfort in reflecting upon Gord’s relentless commitment to protecting natural resources and ensuring access to environmental justice.

For example, as explained by Mark Mattson and Krystyn Tully of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW), Gord and the other members of The Tragically Hip (Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay) were instrumental in establishing LOW and helping spread the #SwimDrinkFish message from coast to coast.

Similarly, Gord narrated the award-winning documentary Waterlife, which chronicles the harmful impacts upon the Great Lakes caused by pollution, invasive species and other serious ecological threats.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of representing LOW and Gord (in his capacity as “Trustee of Lake Ontario”) in the precedent-setting Lafarge case under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR).

CELA lawyer Joe Castrilli (then in private practice) also represented Gord and all Hip members in their capacity as co-owners of their recording studio in Bath, Ontario. This studio was located near the Lafarge cement plant, which had received provincial approvals to burn scrap tires, plastic and other waste as “alternative fuel” despite the community’s concerns about airborne contamination.

We all worked closely with local residents in using the EBR to obtain leave (permission) to appeal these approvals to the Environmental Review Tribunal. However, Lafarge brought a judicial review application that requested the Ontario Divisional Court to set aside the Tribunal’s leave decision and stop the public hearing. Gord attended every day of the court proceedings and took detailed notes, which he would review with us over lunch in the barristers’ lounge at the Osgoode Hall courthouse in Toronto.

Fortunately, in its landmark 2008 judgment, a three judge panel of the Divisional Court unanimously dismissed Lafarge’s legal challenge and upheld the Tribunal’s decision. An attempt by Lafarge to further appeal the matter to the Ontario Court of Appeal was also unsuccessful, and the tire-burning approvals were ultimately withdrawn without being used.

In a media release about the case, Gord correctly observed that “the precedent set here is a huge achievement and reason to rejoice,” and that “this is a great day for Bath, for all communities, up and down the Lake and across the Province.”

The significance of this litigation is also reflected in Gord’s discussion of the Lafarge case in a booklet prepared and web-posted in 2015 by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario to explain how Ontarians can use the EBR to fight for what is right. As noted by Gord in this publication:

This is our air and water, these things belong to us. Every licence to pollute, every environmental impact, must be considered carefully and publicly. These are our environmental rights, rights that are as important as any others, rights that must be respected.

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Lafarge judgment, Gord kindly took Joe, Krystyn, Mark and me out for a celebratory dinner that featured many laughs, stories and, of course, Boston Bruins talk. Sadly, Gord will not be with us to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this key environmental victory.

The Hip also thanked us in the liner notes for their 2009 album We are the Same. As an avid Hip fan (and fellow Kingstonian), I was touched and grateful for the band’s thoughtful gesture.

As we reflect on Gord’s life and career, CELA recognizes and applauds his inspirational courage and overall dedication to achieving social and environmental justice.

Hey man, Gord, thanks. Peace.