Occasional articles - 2008

Michelle Swenarchuk, 59 - Activist

She championed the environment and defeated the 'Harvard Mouse'

Lawyer took on forestry giants to secure sustainable growth and successfully argued against a powerful initiative by the pharmaceutical industry to patent a genetically altered rodent.

Obituaries - Special to the Globe & Mail by Noreen Shanahan, Toronto

TORONTO -- Michelle Swenarchuk was a public intellectual. As executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association she fought for sustainable development in Northern Ontario's forests. Her work and vision contributed to Canada's most positive environmental footprints, and there is some suggestion that it was she who coined the phrase "environmental crisis."

She also led a successful intervention in the famed Harvard Mouse Case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on whether medical researchers could patent higher life forms. She participated in negotiations and consultations regarding international laws at the World Trade Organization, the Organization of Economic Development, the International Labour Organization and the North American Commission for Environmental Co-operation.

Michelle Swenarchuk was the youngest of three children born into a Ukrainian family in Lloydminster, Sask. As a child, she liked to pedal her bicycle kilometres out of town just for sheer joy and the view of an expanding sky. Her hometown, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, had five or six stores, a dragged-down hotel and a handful of grain elevators. Half the population was German Mennonite, the other half English. Including the Swenarchuks, there were three Ukrainian families.

Everything changed when, as a teenager, she moved with the rest of her family to nearby Saskatoon. Her world expanded to included antiwar protests, draft dodgers and an emerging social consciousness. Her mother's work as a social worker likely also influenced her, for she was briefly tempted to enter the same profession.

After getting her BA in English literature at the University of Saskatchewan, she worked as a de facto social worker in rural Saskatchewan but soon realized that becoming a lawyer would be a more effective career path. She moved to Toronto in the early 1970s to attend Osgoode Hall Law School. There, she found that just 10 per cent of the student body was female, with an even smaller number specializing in labour law, as she did. She was called to the bar in 1976 and opened a practice with Judith McCormack, a fellow graduate.

In the early days, she worked primarily with a group of small Canadian unions fighting for the rights of immigrant women, many of whom toiled in the most appalling sweatshop conditions or as building cleaners. The unions were affiliated with the Confederation of Canadian Unions, founded in 1969 by Quebec labour activists Madeleine Parent and Kent Rowley, and were often labelled as communist.

Choosing to work for them wasn't generally thought to be a brilliant career move. "Of course this wasn't exactly high-paying work - or, in some cases, paying work at all," recalled Ms. McCormack.

The firm was audited by Revenue Canada twice in the early days. When she asked the auditor why, he told them that they had made so little money they figured the firm must have been a front for a money-laundering operation. "This was a bit like adding insult to penury," said Ms. McCormack.

In 1979, Ms. Swenarchuk moved into a more lucrative position as counsel to the Canadian Union of Professional and Technical Employees. One of her responsibilities was representing civil aviation inspectors at a Royal Commission on aviation safety. Next, she took a position with the Federation of Women's Teachers Associations of Ontario, working on collective bargaining, education and equity policies. In the late 1970s, she joined the National Action Committee on the Status of Women as a member of the employment committee. She became an executive member in 1982 and served under the presidency of Doris Anderson.

But the bonds of sisterhood were sometimes a challenge to negotiate. When Ms. Anderson was NAC president, she confided to fellow executive board members that she didn't want to go to any meetings "where women held hands or hummed." Ms. Swenarchuk understood this timidity, agreed, and on all accounts the two women shared a great deal of non-hand-holding success. Ms. Swenarchuk's three strongest mentors were Ms. Parent, Ms. Anderson and research physicist Ursula Franklin. In 2006, she wrote the forward to The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map.

The late 1980s and early 1990s presented Ms. Swenarchuk with two hugely significant challenges. They were both personal and professional. First, her daughter Larissa was born in Toronto in 1988; second, after having served a few years as chief counsel to CELA, she became the executive director in 1991. Suddenly, at the same time she was knee deep in diapers, she was also on the nightly news warning people about the state of the environment.

"I remember the first time I laid eyes on Michelle Swenarchuk," said Karen Clark, senior policy co-ordinator for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. "She was on TV saying things that I had never heard anybody say before. I remember the phrase, 'We're in the middle of an environmental crisis.' She was using that kind of very strong language when very few people were talking like that."

CELA is funded by the Ontario legal aid plan with a mandate to represent environmental groups and low-income individuals affected by environmental problems. In the 1980s, CELA represented a coalition of Northern Ontario environmental groups called Forests for Tomorrow at a landmark hearing into Ontario's timber management program. It was probably the biggest such hearing in Canadian history, with 440 separate hearings covering a four-year period.

"It was mind-boggling - and mind numbing - said CELA's Rick Lindgren. "And yet, with Michelle as our fearless lead counsel, somehow we survived the ordeal and ... achieved some real progress."

Attending the hearings was a gruelling ordeal. Every Monday, Mr. Lindgren and Ms. Swenarchuk would fly out of Toronto early in the morning, drop baby Larissa off at Thunder Bay daycare, spend the day at the hearing, pick up Larissa and eat dinner at the house they had rented for the duration. After the dishes were done, Ms. Swenarchuk would play with her daughter, tell her stories and put her to bed. Then she'd work until the wee hours reading evidence and preparing cross-examination for the next day.

In a Toronto Star column in 1989, Ms. Anderson described one plane ride where 16-month-old Larissa accidentally kicked over the breakfast tray, spraying scrambled egg across the lap of her mother's blue suit. "Two hours later, after a quick clean-up, [Ms. Swenarchuk] was cross-examining a top government official."

In the end, they got what Forests for Tomorrow wanted: sustainable forestry.

While Ms. Swenarchuk also served as an advocate for women, trade unionists, aboriginals and immigrant workers, her greatest success - and greatest notoriety - occurred when she argued the Harvard Mouse case at the Supreme Court of Canada. According to Mr. Lindgren, the matter had arrived at CELA's doorstep just at a time when the struggle for environmental protection was becoming more complex. In addition to being engaged in site-specific battles over such things as dumps, quarries and incinerators, they were becoming increasingly involved in international "mega-cases."

The Harvard rodent was just such a case. Around that time, scientists at Harvard University had modified mice by inserting a gene that caused them to develop cancer. They acquired a patent for the mouse that extended to all non-human life forms. In the process, they applied for a patent in Canada and the resulting litigation eventually ended up before the Supreme Court. At the proceedings, CELA represented itself and six other public-interest groups, including the Canadian Council of Churches, Greenpeace of Canada and the Sierra Club of Canada. In 2002, the court ruled that higher life forms could not be patented in Canada.

It was a staggering success, said Ms. Clark. "For Michelle to have beaten the pharmaceutical industry, that was a signal victory and the organizing point around her life and her work."

It also lay at the root of her beliefs about justice, she said. "It works for you whether you're rich or you're poor, that's what the rule of law is. Michelle believed that very strongly ... that was the fight that she was always fighting."

In 2004, Ms. Swenarchuk was awarded the Law Society of Upper Canada medal for outstanding contributions.

Michelle Swenarchuk was born in Lloydminster, Sask., on Oct. 30, 1948. She died of cancer at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto on Feb. 27, 2008. She was 59. She leaves daughter Larissa Swenarchuk, brother Lauren Swenarchuk, sister Bonnie Zwack and parents Michael and Janet Swenarchuk.