Intervenor: Vol 24. No 4 October - December 1999

CELA is There - Executive Director's Report: CELA's Case Work and Law Reform are Linked

Over the past few months, CELA has been reviewing how best to achieve its goals and serve its constituency. CELA continues to further its mandate through both its casework and law reform activities.

As the trend continues in Canada toward downsizing, deregulation and devolution, CELA has noticed a discernable increase in demand for legal representation from across Ontario. Simply put, Ontarians no longer feel they can rely on government to "fix" their environmental problems and are beginning to realize their only recourse are the courts and tribunals. As such, CELA's focus has been gradually shifting to more and more litigation as a response to these demands.

CELA's basic criteria remain:

  • prospective clients who meet legal aid's eligibility guidelines;
  • anticipated environmental and human health impacts, and;
  • the legal importance of the case.

At times, CELA feels compelled to take on cases in its own name as test cases to pursue important legal principles. For example, CELA has challenged the federal government over concluding the Canada-Wide Accord on Environmental Harmonization on the grounds that the Minister of the Environment does not have the authority to enter into such an agreement with the provinces. The net effect of this agreement is the erosion of federal power to protect the environment. (See Intervenor v.23 no.4, linked below.)

Similarly, CELA felt compelled to intervene in Harvard College v. Commissioner of Patents where the issue is whether a mammal (in this case a genetically altered mouse) can be given a patent. We also intervened in Friends of West Country v. Canada (Sunpine) where the issue was the scope of an important federal environmental law, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act [see article, linked below.]

The mainstay of CELA's work, however, is assisting Ontarians from across the province to protect the environment. CELA represents, for example, Friends of Red Hill Valley, a group attempting to protect a valley that borders Hamilton and Stoney Creek from the construction of a major expressway. We represented a coalition of groups opposing the approval of the Adams Mine in Kirkland Lake from becoming a landfill in order to accept Toronto's waste. We have represented the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment in that group's attempt to oppose inappropriate development on the Niagara Escarpment.

A good portion of CELA's work is devoted not to the high profile cases often described in the media, but to people who are battling some environmental problem that is affecting them profoundly. For example, CELA is acting for a family that is suffering from health problems because of the emissions of a local facility. We also represent a number of cases where residents have challenged the issuance of permits to take groundwater either for industrial purposes or for water bottling [see article, linked below.]

CELA is representing one family that is directly affected by odours from a neighbouring composting facility. The case has ramifications for intensive farming operations [see article, linked below].

A settlement is just about complete in case where a family has been adversely affected by living beside a landfill near Barrie. Another, on-going case deals with leaking containers of hazardous waste near our client's property which have contaminated groundwater and caused other problems on our client's property.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It does not describe some of the work we do representing First Nations, some of the long protracted cases or the hundreds of calls we get every year requesting summary legal advice on one matter or another.

These cases are important for another reason. They tell us what our law reform priorities should be. The relatively large number of cases devoted to protecting the province's water supplies is one reason why water conservation and protection is a major theme for CELA in its law reform activities. 

CELA's Toxics and Human Health program focuses on finding legislative and policy means to limit human exposure to the most dangerous of substances and to ensure that industry is accountable for their activities.

CELA continues to monitor land use and planning changes in the province and to make the public aware of the problems associated with urban sprawl and inappropriate planning.

Finally, CELA's International Programme, among many other activities, tracks the influence of trade regimes on domestic environmental protection and natural resource laws and policies.

CELA remains responsive to its legal-aid mandate to serve those who would not otherwise be able to obtain legal advice or representation. In the process of acting for our clients, we must advocate for the sustainability of Ontario's environment for generations to come.

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA