Ottawa trying to toss out climate lawsuit from youth activists

Laura Lynch
Sep 24, 2020

(Kwiadda McEvoy)

While the federal government restated its commitment to fighting climate change in Wednesday's throne speech, CBC has learned Ottawa has also urged a judge to throw out a case brought by a group of young Canadians claiming their right to a safe, stable climate has been breached. 


The case, La Rose et al. v. Her Majesty the Queenwas initially filed on Oct. 25, 2019, and has yet to be argued in federal court. It involves 15 youths and teenagers from across Canada who are making a relatively novel legal argument — that their rights to life, liberty, security and equality are being violated because Ottawa has not done enough to protect against climate change.

The hearings are scheduled to begin in Vancouver on Sept. 30 and are expected to last two days.

The stakes are high. If the young people win, a court could force the government to overhaul its plans, reducing Canada's harmful emissions more rapidly and potentially ending fossil fuel industry subsidies.

"This case — it's the only way forward," said 16-year-old Ira Reinhart-Smith of Caledonia, N.S., who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

"We can't wait for the government to keep saying, 'We'll make a plan that will be up to the most current science.' We need them to be forced to make a plan that's to the current science, because unless the courts are ordering them to do that, we've seen in the past they're not going to follow up on the promises," Reinhart-Smith told Laura Lynch, host of CBC Radio's What on Earth

Listen here (27 min.): What On Earth
Can the courts be a ‘can opener’ to faster climate action?
Fifteen Canadian youth argue they're being disproportionately hurt by climate change and the federal government is violating their rights. But Ottawa wants the case thrown out. We dig into the arguments and ask if the courts can ensure climate action? 27:00

Reinhart-Smith and the others in the case were brought together by Our Children's Trust, a non-profit public interest law firm based in Oregon that has helped organize similar lawsuits in the United States and elsewhere. 

Another plaintiff in the Canadian case, 17-year-old Haana Edenshaw of the Haida Nation (photo above), is experiencing the effects of climate change on her very doorstep in the village of Masset on Haida Gwaii, off the northwest coast of B.C.

"The water comes right up past our porch, it goes by the door of my room, and it's really scary because it's just going to keep on getting worse every year," Edenshaw said.

Other countries and courts have recognized a constitutional right to a safe environment, but that does not mean Canada will follow suit.

No one from Environment and Climate Change Canada would comment on the case, saying it is before the courts. But in documents filed in the case, lawyers for the federal department acknowledge that "climate change is real … and is having very real consequences on people's lives. Its impacts will get more significant over time."

In its arguments to dismiss the case, though, the federal lawyers argue the lawsuit doesn't target any particular law. "Instead, it asks the Court to decide whether the executive is governing well." And that, the lawyers assert, is not a proper case to bring before a judge.

There is no explicit environmental right in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The young plaintiffs want a judge to rule that such a right is implicit, as with a number of other rights, such as sexual orientation.


One of the lawyers for the young plaintiffs, Catherine Boies Parker, contends their claim is serious, substantial and rightly argued in a full hearing. 

"It can't be the case that the government can, without any constitutional constraints whatsoever, continue to engage in" activities that jeopardize its climate targets, which are to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, said Boies Parker.

"Everyone understands now it is causing all of this harm to the plaintiffs. It can't be that [politicians] get a free pass on that just because climate change is complex."

— Laura Lynch