Canadian lawyers call on re-elected PM Trudeau to combat climate change with review of laws and justice system

Canada's laws, judicial infrastructure and justice system are 'not designed' to cope with climate destabilisation, open letter claims
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets bystanders after a press conference at the Eva James Memorial Community Centre in Kanata.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shortly after September's election Chris Allan; Shutterstock

Canada’s legal system is not geared up to cope with the effects of climate change, a new letter signed by hundreds of Canadian lawyers claims. 

The open letter has been published by Lawyers for Climate Justice (L4CL) and signed by more than 100 Canadian lawyers. It urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the incoming minister of justice and attorney general to protect Canadian citizens from the destabilising effects climate change poses to their fundamental rights by reviewing "all federal statutes and forthcoming bills through a climate justice lens and...ensure that vulnerable populations are meaningfully protected".

Its publication follows Trudeau's re-election to serve a third term as PM, albeit at the head of a minority government. Signatories include six legal organisations from across the provinces including the Canadian Environmental Law Association, as well as advocacy groups West Coast Environmental Law and East Coast Environmental Law. 

Also among the signatories are environmental law experts Andrew Petter, former attorney general of British Columbia and member of the Order of Canada, David Estrin, former Gowling WLG senior partner and founder of the firm’s environmental law practice group, and Deborah Curran, executive director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Center. 

The letter comes in the wake of the heat dome disaster that killed more than 570 British Columbia residents in June as a result of unusually high temperatures in the province and the lack of a heat action plan, targeted support for at-risk populations or adequate access to cooling systems. 

The weather system’s high death toll illustrates how climate change threatens the rights of Canadian citizens, the letter claims, including the right to life, liberty and security enshrined in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter. Also addressed in the letter is climate change’s impact on Canada’s prison infrastructure, which has been left vulnerable by a lack of protection for prisoners and justice workers against rising temperatures and extreme weather. 

It further warns that climate change is ‘exacerbating inequality, racism, and other systemic injustice’, particularly the rights of Canada’s Indigienous peoples, and calls on recipients to review all federal statutes and forthcoming bills through the lens of climate justice to ‘ensure that vulnerable populations are meaningfully protected’. 

Aladdin Tingling Diakun, co-chair of L4CL’s climate competence working group, emphasised that lawyers and Canadian citizens alike “cannot  afford  to  wait  and  see  how quickly our rights are eroded, or how vulnerable our prisons are to power losses or flooding, or how much worse systemic racism  gets in the face of climate disruption.”

He added: “Lawyers from every practice area share ethical obligations to improve the administration of justice, champion the rule of law and safeguard the rights and freedoms of all persons. In the face of accelerating climate threats, meeting our ethical obligations requires a highly proactive approach, including from the incoming attorney general.”

In June last year, the International Bar Association (IBA) unveiled a model statute to help citizens launch legal challenges against their governments for failing to take action over climate change. 

And in June this year, a group of more than 20 law firms, including Baker McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Shearman & Sterling and Slaughter & May, committed to accelerating the reduction of firm-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as members of a new international group called the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance (NZLA).

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