British Columbia

Canadian youths to sue Ottawa over government's role in climate change

Fifteen children and teens are planning to sue the federal government over climate change, claiming Ottawa's role in perpetuating the crisis violates their fundamental rights.

15 children and teens claim federal officials are violating their rights to life, liberty and equality

Thousands of students participated in a strike in Vancouver to raise awareness about the threat climate change poses to the planet and the futures of young people on Sept. 16. On Friday, 15 youths from across Canada say they plan to sue the federal government over its environmental policies. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Young Canadian activists are planning to sue the federal government over climate change, claiming Ottawa's role in perpetuating the crisis violates their fundamental rights.

The impending lawsuit from 15 youths across Canada will claim they have "suffered specific, individualized injuries" due to climate change, interfering with their constitutional rights to life, liberty and security of the person.

"They each have compelling stories, I think, about how climate change has been severely impacting them ... they're apprehensive about their future," said Chris Tollefson, one of the lawyers representing the group.

The group is also claiming the government's "contribution" to high levels of greenhouse gases and climate change infringes on their right to equality, since young people are disproportionately affected by long-term effects of a deteriorating climate.

In an unusual move, the intent to file the lawsuit was announced Wednesday by the David Suzuki Foundation, which is backing the teens by supporting the case's legal framework and acting as a communications lead. The foundation said they plan to file in federal court on Friday ahead of a climate strike in Vancouver.

A statement from the foundation said the lawsuit will call on the federal government to "protect young Canadians, do its fair share to stabilize the climate system and avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change." 

"We have a global responsibility to address this problem; to fix the problem that has been created over the years. The federal government is uniquely positioned to do that — no province, or even group of provinces, could tackle this problem," said Tollefson, a law professor at the University of Victoria.

"We say that [the federal government] should be ordered to do so in a way that complies with the rights of these people under the Charter," he continued, adding the youths aren't asking for financial compensation. 

Students participate in a climate strike on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver on Sept. 27, 2019. Young people joined the demonstration across the city. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The Canadian youth, comprised of young people from eight provinces and the Northwest Territories, are being represented by high-profile constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay as well as Tollefson. The group includes plaintiffs ranging from 10 to 19 years old, according to a spokesperson from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Sierra Robinson, a 16-year-old activist from B.C.'s Cowichan Valley, was the only teen plaintiff named in Wednesday's statement.

International movement 

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions filed by youth around the world in recent years. A group of young Americans sued the U.S. federal government in 2015, accusing federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by knowing for decades that carbon pollution poisons the environment, but doing nothing about it.

The lawsuits, including the Canadian effort, are supported by Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit organization that says it's dedicated to protecting natural systems for present and future generations. 

Andrea Rogers, a senior attorney at Our Children's Trust, says lawsuits like these are an important piece in the fight for social change. 

"The example we give here in the United States is the civil rights movement," Rogers said. "We needed Brown vs. Board of Education — the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated our public schools — and we needed the [Montgomery] bus boycott."

Rogers says the court system is a key part of government and can step in to correct when government takes action that's violating the rights of people. 

Sustainibiliteens, the teenage rally organizers who have organized previous climate strikes in Vancouver, say they are set to speak about the lawsuit ahead of Friday's rally. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, plans to attend the Vancouver protest.

Organizer Samathan Lin, 17, is not a plaintiff but said Sustainibiliteens supports the lawsuit.

"This is a really, really important next step," Lin said Tuesday. "It's one step closer to the goal that we have: making climate change more of a priority ... and making government accountable."

Listen to the full interview with co-counsel Chris Tollefson below:


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the David Suzuki Foundation as a plaintiff in the teens' lawsuit. In fact, they are supporting the teens' efforts as a public communications lead.
    Oct 23, 2019 10:11 AM PT

With files from Daybreak South, On The Coast, and Reuters