Climate Litigation and Experiential Learning – Students Q&A

These three are among many law students who have enrolled in CELL’s educational program, gaining first-hand experience in public interest environmental litigation through cases like the youth-led climate lawsuit La Rose v. Her Majesty The Queen (L to R): Larissa Parker (McGill Law), Will Andrews (Oxford Law, UK), Victoria Kacer (UVic Law).

One of CELL’s core founding beliefs is that public interest environmental litigation plays a key role in Canadian society. At CELL, we educate the next generation of public interest environmental litigators by immersing students in these critically important and real-life cases, allowing students to work alongside seasoned lawyers fighting for the public interest. As we nurture the environmental defenders of tomorrow, we are also supporting environmental defenders of the present.

The youth-led climate lawsuit, La Rose v. Her Majesty The Queen, is a prime example of CELL’s unique model of experiential learning, which attracts the best and brightest students from law schools across Canada and beyond. In this nationally important case, fifteen young Canadians from seven Canadian provinces and the Northwest Territories and from diverse backgrounds are suing the Government of Canada for its contribution to climate change. Not only is this case environmentally significant, it is legally significant for the potential development of the law around the rights guaranteed under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter and around the public trust doctrine. These young Canadians are represented by the law firms Arvay Finlay LLP and Tollefson Law Corporation, and are supported by the David Suzuki Foundation and Our Children’s Trust.

CELL is a proud educational partner in the La Rose case. Using this lawsuit as a vehicle for experiential learning, students enrolled in CELL’s educational program gain hands-on experience in developing and running complex public interest cases and develop competencies and skills relevant to public interest legal practice. CELL students have the opportunity to work closely with and supporting the legal team representing the young plaintiffs, which has included working with the lawyers to draft the Statement of Claim and prepare for argument in court. In turn, these students gained first-hand experience in conducting complex, public interest litigation. CELL students will continue to play a crucial role in bringing this case ultimately to trial.

In the Q & A that follows, three of our students explain their interest in environmental litigation and CELL’s program and provide their own reflections on their experience with CELL and the La Rose case. Larissa Parker is currently a third-year law student at McGill University. Victoria Kacer is currently in her second year of law school at the University of Victoria. Finally, Will Andrews is in his third year of studying law at Oxford University (UK).

Q: How did you become interested in environmental litigation?

Larissa: Before law school, I completed a Master’s degree at Oxford on the cultural and social impacts of climate change on Indigenous people. I got the chance to speak with actors in small island communities in the Pacific, as well as communities in the Arctic, and was deeply moved by their stories and experiences associated with climate change and how it was impacting their relationships to their land and themselves. This work eventually drove me to get more involved in activism and advocacy at home. Around this time, I noticed that climate litigation was increasingly being used as a tool to hold governments accountable for climate-related rights violations. I really see it as a powerful tool that challenges powerful actors and incentive structures head on, while simultaneously increasing awareness about the rights and harm at issue.

Victoria: For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about environmental protection. While my background is in environmental science and policy, I was initially motivated to pursue a career in environmental law through my experiences advocating for natural heritage preservation at my alma mater. The school’s administration had approved the construction of a twin-pad arena on a portion of a provincially significant wetland. I was involved with a student-run organization focused on local sustainability at the time and we began a campaign to persuade the administration to select another site or cancel the project altogether. The proposed site was ultimately relocated because a biology student determined that the Jefferson Salamander (a listed species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act) called the wetland home. While I still strongly believe in the importance of activism and grassroots movements, this experience highlighted the ways in which existing legislative frameworks can be used to effect positive change and inspired me to pursue a career as an environmental lawyer.

Will: Growing up in Vancouver, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to follow and attend a wealth of interesting environmental cases first-hand. I was drawn in particular to the litigation surrounding the Site-C hydroelectric dam project, and the injunctions and judicial review proceedings brought by various First Nations groups across the Province. That exposure, set against a backdrop of a childhood spent outdoors and courses in Environmental Science, was a large part of what prompted me to apply to study law at the undergraduate level at Oxford. Studying law, and specifically Environmental Law, at university has only affirmed my interest in a career in environmental litigation.

Q: How did you find out about CELL and how long have you been a part of CELL’s program?

Larissa: I have been supporting research on climate litigation for two years now, under Professor Sébastien Jodoin in the Law, Governance and Society Lab at McGill. I focus on climate litigation as a tool to protect the rights of minority groups (and particularly, youth), as well as the rights of future generations. Through this work, I have followed Canadian and international cases extensively and heard about CELL along the way, as an opportunity to support one of them! I have been involved since March 2020.

Victoria: I took Criminal Law with Professor Tollefson last year. As soon as I learned about CELL and Professor Tollefson’s involvement with the La Rose case, I knew I had to get involved. I was lucky enough to participate in CELL during my first year of law school – an essential experience that helped keep me motivated to power through my introductory courses by reminding me why I came to law school in the first place – and I have been involved ever since.

Will: I was introduced to CELL by Joe Arvay, Q.C., lead counsel in the La Rose litigation, in July 2019. I was a part of CELL’s program for the summer of 2019 and then joined again in January 2020 for the spring, summer and fall terms.

Q: What aspects of the La Rose litigation have you been exposed to through the CELL program?

Larissa: This past summer, I was immensely lucky to get the opportunity to support the legal team in their response to the government’s motion to strike. As a group, we explored various legal issues in climate litigation. Eventually, students were able to apply what we learned to a specific piece of the motion to strike. I was able to deep dive into the climate change-related Charter claims. Eventually, I was also able to discuss these ideas with the lawyers involved in the case. This was tons of fun and a wonderful learning experience. And, just a few months later, we were able to follow along in the hearing and eventually, read the judge’s decision. This was truly a full circle opportunity for me – thank you CELL!

Victoria: As I initially got involved with CELL shortly after the Statement of Claim was filed, I have been able to work with the legal team throughout the entire motion to strike process. In addition to attending collaborative weekly discussions focusing on various aspects of the plaintiffs’ arguments and workshops focused on written and oral advocacy skills. I have been fortunate enough to be invited “behind-the-scenes,” sitting in on, and occasionally participating in, strategy meetings with the entire legal team. The most rewarding experience I have had with CELL has been assisting the team with legal research to support the plaintiffs’ arguments in response to Canada’s motion to strike. While it was intimidating at first, it was an amazing practical learning experience which allowed me to build upon the legal research skills and constitutional law knowledge I had developed in first year and apply them to a climate justice case with real meaning for real people. It was kind of a dream come true for a nerdy first year law student passionate about environmental justice!

Will: I was fortunate to join CELL in July 2019 when the La Rose litigation was still in its early stages. As a result, my first work project at CELL was on a preliminary memo regarding the public trust doctrine in the Statement of Claim. Fast forwarding then to February 2020, in light of Canada’s preliminary motions, I was asked to look into the jurisprudence around the legal standard and approach to be applied on a motion to strike, as well as the ramifications of that approach for the La Rose litigation. Most recently, this summer I had the pleasure of working alongside CELL students in preparing a draft response to Canada’s motion to strike. Throughout the drafting process we continued group discussions in weekly CELL seminars and had the further opportunity to attend legal team calls discussing tactics and next steps in the litigation process. As an exciting finish to the summer’s work, I was incredibly fortunate to attend the hearing of the motion to strike in September as Professor Tollefson’s junior, before Justice Manson in the Federal Court. It was fantastic to hear the arguments made in court after witnessing and being involved in the work that went into preparation. Sitting at the counsel table and discussing points as they arose with Professor Tollefson made it all the more special. As a final note, I was inspired to see the response of the plaintiffs on a call following the hearing – they had been following the hearing via Zoom, were very engaged and seemed excited at the prospect of their claim being heard in court.

Q: How has the CELL program helped you develop your skills in litigation? How do you think you will apply the skills that you’ve learned through CELL to your legal career going forward?

Larissa: I think ultimately, the program does two things. First, it exposes students to innovative legal arguments that ground climate litigation cases and helps them tease out the strengths and weaknesses of each claim, at every turn. Second, students have the opportunity to apply these skills to an ongoing case and apply lessons learned to a real case. It’s a lesson in thoughtful and creative litigation. I’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of various legal arguments and the rationale for different strategies. I’ve also learned about litigation’s ability to push the boundaries of the law, which to me, is what public interest litigation is all about. This appreciation for creativity and nuance will definitely stick with me in the future.

Victoria: While the legal knowledge and skills I have developed in law school have provided me with a strong foundation, the opportunity to continually apply them to, arguably, one of the most important cases of our time has been invaluable and I know that I will be a better litigator for it. I have learned so much from CELL, but I think the most valuable aspect of the program has been the opportunity to strengthen my critical thinking skills and learn to think like a litigator. CELL instructors always situate our discussions within the La Rose litigation and the broader context of environmental law and demonstrate how we should be thinking strategically while developing legal arguments. Being involved in such a novel a complex case has deepened my understanding of the work that goes into developing the legal arguments and strategies that eventually lead to the judgments we focus on in class. Working with CELL has also allowed me to develop a more holistic perspective. CELL instructors always prioritize student learning and skills development – I couldn’t ask for better mentors and teachers as I begin my journey in the field of public interest environmental law.

Will: The strength of the CELL program, in my view, is its ability to expose students like me to nearly every stage of the litigation process – seminars, guest lectures, legal research projects, counsel meetings, legal submissions, courtroom advocacy to name a few. CELL instructors work hard to provide the class with interesting reading lists and engaging seminars, but more importantly have given the students countless opportunities to apply that reading to practical effect in the La Rose case. As a result, the CELL program has complimented my academic work by allowing me to put substantive principles to work in drafting legal memos and submissions. Working with CELL has also presented me with a unique opportunity to develop my research and written advocacy skills in a collaborative professional environment. Seminars, counsel meetings and strategic planning at the hearing have required dynamic problem solving and developed my teamwork skills in the litigation context. The program has made me acutely aware of the effort required to litigate claims such as La Rose and underscored the importance of effective cooperation.

Posted: November 11, 2020