Reflections on Climate Justice and the Law

by Carson Cook, Eva Boghosian and Hannah West

As members of the 2023-2024 Environmental Rights Student Working Group at the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, eleven first year students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law have been researching various legal doctrines, legislation, and case law related to how environmental rights are conceived in Canada, how they can be used/acted upon, and how they might be improved. Their research has covered environmental constitutional litigation like Mathur v Ontario; how Indigenous rights and knowledge interact with environment law; and, legal doctrines from other jurisdictions that provide environmental protection. The outcome of this research will be a guidebook that informs community organizers and activists of the state of environmental rights within Canada.

To take part in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, we asked these students to reflect on their research and the potential for climate action within Canada. A common theme, and perhaps a surprising one, was positivity surrounding Canada’s ability to pursue climate action within its legal framework. Though the students identified various issues of implementation, they appreciated finding processes within the Canadian legal system that can support environmental protection and climate action. Students also valued their research as it provided them with an opportunity to learn about other jurisdictions and the processes used internationally that could be adopted within Canada. Though, in addition to issues of implementation, the students noted the legal system only moves in small steps. However, the students noted they felt more empowered to think about furthering climate action with their new knowledge of these environmental legal frameworks.

Another recurring insight from the students was how important education for the general public is for meaningful climate action – highly relevant to the Environmental Rights Working Group’s goal of creating a guidebook for lay-people to understand their legal rights with respect to the environment. As law students and future lawyers, we are in positions of privilege to have the tools and training to research complicated theories and frameworks that greatly affect how climate action is pursued, and we therefore have a duty to help educate those around us. Importantly, the students noted, this education should not simply be providing information, but conducted in a way that empowers people – to build their skills, knowledge, and confidence so that they can work and learn in the environmental space to further change.

Such education builds power for all of us to push for change, as legal professionals or otherwise. This was the final theme from our reflection session with the student researchers – the importance of an analysis of power when working for climate justice. While legal processes can be and have been created to further environmental protection, those processes can be subverted when there is a power imbalance between adversarial parties. While law affects social values, social values also affect the law. The collective power of a community asking for change or participating in decision-making processes is key for climate action to occur. This is not to pin the causes of climate change on individuals, but it is to recognize the agency and power we each hold, and that builds when we work together to tackle otherwise insurmountable problems. The Environmental Rights Working Group has been one small way in which we, as law students, are building power within ourselves, amongst each other, and within our Toronto community.

Carson Cook, Eva Boghosian and Hannah West are JD Candidates at the Faculty of Law and are the Asper Centre Environmental Rights Working Group leaders this year. 

Implementing UNDRIP: Opportunities and Challenges

By Catherine Ma

On October 22, 2018, the Faculty of Law’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives hosted Professor Brenda Gunn to discuss the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”). Her presentation primarily focused upon the opportunities and challenges related to implementing UNDRIP in Canada.

UNDRIP enshrines the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples in relation to culture, identity, language, education, employment, health, and other issues. These rights are the bare minimum rights of Indigenous peoples; in other words, states are free to recognize stronger rights than those articulated in UNDRIP. Nevertheless, UNDRIP is monumental document since Indigenous peoples directly participated in drafting its provisions. Its adoption signalled a recognition and protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights within the United Nations and international legal systems.

Professor Gunn endorsed Bill C-262 as a framework for implementing UNDRIP. This bill would state affirmatively that UNDRIP applies in Canada; require the federal government to ensure all domestic laws are compliant with UNDRIP, develop and implement a national action plan for achieving UNDRIP’s articles, and report annually to Parliament regarding its progress; as well as clarify that UNDRIP does not diminish or extinguish any §35(1) rights. Professor Gunn emphasized that a national action plan is essential to ensure that different Indigenous peoples can pursue their rights as they understand them. She further suggested that human rights commissions can have an “active role” in promoting UNDRIP and mediating between the Canadian state and Indigenous Peoples.

Professor Gunn asserted that the scope of §35(1) rights must be reconsidered; at a minimum, §35(1) rights must include the rights enshrined in UNDRIP. She reasoned that R v Van der Peet is no longer authoritative law, as §35(1) cannot only protect activities that are “central and integral to the distinctive community practiced continually since contact.” §35(1) must protect all practices, traditions, and customs that are connected sufficiently to the self-identity and self-preservation of Indigenous nations.

UNDRIP at the Asper Centre

The Asper Centre has a dedicated Indigenous Rights Student Working Group (“IRSWG”) that focuses on the constitutional dimension of Indigenous rights. This year, the IRSWG will analyze UNDRIP and Bill C-262 with the intent of drafting general recommendations and observations about actions that ought to be taken in order to implement UNDRIP. This project will examine how UNDRIP affects different legal and policy areas. The group’s other projects include drafting proposed legislation to exonerate Indigenous peoples who were convicted for practicing their ceremonies under past legal regimes; and examining Beaver v Hill for the §35(1) governance issues in relation to Haudenosaunee law and family law.

It will be fascinating to follow the IRSWG’s progress on these projects as the year unfolds.

Catherine Ma is a 3L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and was a student leader of the Asper Centre’s Indigenous Rights student working group in 2017-2018.