British Columbia

Youth-led climate change lawsuit dismissed by Federal Court

A Federal Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Canadian government won't be going on trial for contributions to climate change — striking down a lawsuit brought by 15 young Canadians who argued the government was violating their charter rights.

Appeal planned, after case calling for climate change plan fails

Thousands of people filled the streets on Oct. 25, 2019 to march for action on climate change, alongside youth activist Greta Thunberg on the same day that Canadian youth filed a lawsuit against Ottawa. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Federal Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Canadian government won't be going on trial for contributions to climate change — striking down a lawsuit brought by 15 young Canadians who argued the government was violating their charter rights.

Federal Court Justice Michael Manson rejected a lawsuit initiated by the youths aged 10 to 19 years old. Their case called on the court to compel Ottawa to develop a science-based climate recovery plan.

But Manson ruled the claims don't have a reasonable cause of action or prospect of success, so the case cannot proceed to trial.

The lawsuit filed in 2019 says Canada's failure to protect against climate change is a violation of the youths' charter rights.

On Tuesday, Manson ruled the network of  government actions that contribute to climate change is too broad for the court to grapple with, and the court has no role in reviewing the country's overall approach to climate change.

First and hardest hit

Plaintiff Haana Edenshaw, 17, of the Haida Nation, says despite her disappointment, she is refusing to get discouraged and plans to keep pushing to have the case heard, after seeing the effects of climate change in her village of Masset on Haida Gwaii off B.C.'s North Coast.

She said poverty rates and the location of communities leave Indigenous people at higher risk to the negative effects of climate change.

"Indigenous youth in Canada are often the first hit and the hardest hit," she said.

Another plaintiff named Sophia said that it is "a big wake-up call for all Canadian and Indigenous youth. Canada has tried to silence our voice in court and block our calls for climate justice. We won't be dissuaded."

Haana Edenshaw, 17, from Haida Gwaii, B.C., says she is experiencing the effects of climate change on her doorstep in the village of Masset on Haida Gwaii. (Kwiadda McEvoy)

In September, government lawyers argued the lawsuit should be thrown out, as it was far too broad to be heard in court. In Tuesday's ruling, Manson agreed the terms were too broad. Joe Arvay, the lead lawyer on the case, says it's a disappointment, but he plans to push forward and appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The case, La Rose et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen, was initially filed on Oct. 25, 2019.

The lawsuit argued that the plaintiffs — 15 children and teens from across Canada — had their rights to life, liberty and security and equality violated by a government that had failed to do enough to protect against climate change.

In the government's defence submission, federal lawyer Joseph Cheng said the drivers of climate changes are a global problem, and Canada can't act alone to solve the issue. He also argued that the case fell beyond what courts can meaningfully adjudicate.

The statement of claim was filed the day teen climate activist Greta Thunberg visited Vancouver and led a climate strike rally attended by thousands. It says 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."

But there's no explicit environmental right in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And, in his decision, the justice disagreed that right is implicit, as argued in the case.

Nine of the 15 activists suing the Canadian government over its alleged inaction on climate change stand on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Oct. 25, 2019, after filing their lawsuit in federal court. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Of course it's disappointing, but the journey is far from over," said Brendan Glauser of the Suzuki Foundation. Glauser said the ruling acknowledged the negative impact of climate change as something that's significant and pointed out the justice also said the "public trust" doctrine is a legal question that the court can resolve — which, he said, offers legal ground with which the group can attempt to move forward.

"We are proud of our plaintiffs. These brave young plaintiffs know we only have a decade to turn things around, and so far, we are not on track," said Glauser.

For more on this story, tap here to listen to the Sept. 27 episode of What on Earth with Laura Lynch.

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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