British Columbia

Young Canadians file lawsuit against government over climate change

More than a dozen young Canadian activists have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over climate change, claiming Ottawa has violated their fundamental rights by contributing to the warming planet, and demanding a national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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

Nine of the 15 activists suing the Canadian federal government over its alleged inaction on climate change stand on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Oct. 25, 2019. The group announced their lawsuit ahead of a climate strike in Vancouver, attended by Greta Thunberg. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More than a dozen young Canadian activists have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over climate change, claiming Ottawa has violated their fundamental rights by contributing to the warming planet, and demanding a national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The lawsuit from the group of 15 youth, who range in age from 10 to 19, is the latest in a new legal strategy looking to hold governments across the planet accountable for the consequences of climate change. Similar legal action has been taken in India, the Netherlands and the United States.

The plaintiffs stood together on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Friday morning to announce their lawsuit, introducing themselves, one after the other, by name, age, home and climate fears. Each spoke about losing parts of their everyday culture to consequences of a changing environment, namely wildfires, floods, drought and crop failure.

"I don't want to die before I even get a chance to live," Sàj Starcevich, 13, of Melfort, Sask., told an applauding crowd gathered on the gallery plaza.

Thousands of people listen to a group of activists who are suing the federal government over climate change ahead of a climate strike in Vancouver on Friday, October 25, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The children and teens are claiming they have "suffered specific, individualized injuries" due to climate change and high greenhouse gas emissions in the country. They claim the government has infringed on their constitutional rights to life, liberty and security of the person by standing idle as the climate shifts.

The statement of claim filed in a federal court in Vancouver on Friday alleges that, "despite knowing for decades" that carbon emissions "cause climate change and disproportionately harm children," the government continued to allow emissions to increase at a level "incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties."

Albert Lalonde, 17, said young Canadians can't dream, pursue a career or think about raising children in the face of a deteriorating climate.

"I am forced to be here because my conscience won't let me do anything else but fight every single day of my life, and I'm not alone. I am joined in this fight by the millions of young people around the world demanding climate justice," he told a cheering crowd Friday.

"We will fight ... until we have secured our future on this planet," added Lalonde, who lives in Montreal and Laval, Que.

The lawsuit was filed ahead of a climate strike in Vancouver, which will be attended by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, 16, stood quietly alongside the plaintiffs as they made their speeches Friday.

Activist Greta Thunberg listens as a lawsuit against the Canadian federal government and its alleged inaction on climate change was announced in Vancouver on Friday, October 25, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The group is calling on the Canadian government to create a climate change plan that lowers the country's greenhouse gas emissions "in a manner consistent with what best available science indicates is needed for the federal government to protect young Canadians, do its fair share to stabilize the climate system and avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change," the statement read.

The plaintiffs are from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories. The group is being represented by a high-profile legal team, including noted constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay. The David Suzuki Foundation is backing the teens by supporting the legal framework.

Choose a red dot in the map above to learn the names and ages of each plaintiff.

The office of Environment Minister Catherina McKenna issued a statement Friday in response to the lawsuit.

"Young people are pushing their governments for a more sustainable future. We hear them, and all of the Canadians who sent a clear message this election that tackling climate change is a clear priority that they want this Parliament to work on," the statement read.

"While we have made a lot of progress over the last four years, we recognize that more needs to be done and we will continue to advance ambitious climate action to ensure future generations inherit a cleaner and more prosperous future."

The view of the crowd outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, as seen from the gallery roof, as youth activists announced a lawsuit against the Canadian federal government on Friday morning. A climate march was planned through downtown Vancouver after the announcement. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Similar lawsuits around the world, including the Canadian effort, are supported by Our Children's Trust, a non-profit organization that says it's dedicated to protecting natural systems for present and future generations.

Senior attorneys with the trust have said the courts are a key part of government, with the ability to intervene when the nation's leaders take action that violates the rights of the people.

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 between the ages of 11 and 22 sued the U.S. federal government in 2015, accusing federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by doing nothing about carbon pollution, despite knowing for decades that it poisons the environment. 

A district court in the Netherlands sided with an environmental group in 2015, ruling the Dutch government was legally obligated to protect its citizens by doing its part to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 C — the target, the United Nations has said, that must be met in order to avoid a "severe, pervasive and irreversible" impact on the planet.

The Canadians' allegations have not been tested in court.

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

With files from Reuters

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