Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia teen hopes climate-change lawsuit isn't derailed by federal challenge

Ira Reinhart-Smith, the lone Nova Scotian in a lawsuit against the federal government over climate change, says the warming oceans and more storms are already affecting his province. He is hopeful this week's hearings allow their case to go ahead.

'I don't feel that my rights are being protected by my government'

Ira Reinhart-Smith of Nova Scotia is one of the 15 plaintiffs suing the Canadian government over its climate change response. (Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust)

The lone Nova Scotian in a lawsuit against the federal government over climate change has looked at the warming oceans and storms around Nova Scotia, and says he just wants to be heard.

Ira Reinhart-Smith, 16, is one of the 15 children and teens from across Canada who are making a relatively new legal argument — that their rights to life, liberty, security and equality are being violated because Ottawa has not done enough to protect against climate change.

The statement of claim, La Rose et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen, was filed last October but the federal government is asking a judge to throw it out.

"It's embarrassing that our government won't even consider that youth are being harmed by their actions," Reinhart-Smith told CBC's Information Morning on Wednesday from Caledonia, N.S.

"I don't feel that my rights are being protected by my government. In fact, they're being harmed by my government. And that's really hard for me to hear."

Hearings are set to begin in Federal Court in Vancouver on Wednesday and last two days. 

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Catherine Boies Parker, one of the lawyers working for the young plaintiffs, said there's a very high standard the federal government lawyers have to pass to get their suit tossed out.

She said the onus is on the government to prove it's "plain and obvious" the case can't succeed, and that no matter what the evidence is there is no prospect of success.

"We will be resisting that by arguing that indeed this is an issue that the courts should address and that we should have a trial so that it can get on with it," she said.

There is currently no explicit environmental right in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The suit's statement of claim said 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."

Ira Reinhart-Smith of Nova Scotia, back row, centre, stands with his fellow plaintiffs in Vancouver in October 2019 after their case was filed. (Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust)

Reinhart-Smith said he wanted to be part of the lawsuit because he felt "powerless" to make a difference in fighting climate change, which is already affecting Nova Scotia.

More storms in recent years are a result of this change, he said, as well as warming waters which could have a negative effect on the province's lucrative lobster industry.

The isthmus that connects Nova Scotia and New Brunswick could be knocked out by "one more good storm," said Reinhart-Smith, having a huge impact on the daily lives of Nova Scotians.

"This case is helping me feel like I'm actually doing something to combat climate change. And right now, the governments are the ones who need to fix climate change and our governments are not doing enough."

The federal government has urged a judge to throw out the case

In their arguments to dismiss the case, federal lawyers argued the lawsuit doesn't target any particular law but "instead, it asks the court to decide whether the executive is governing well."

That, the lawyers assert, is not a proper case to bring before a judge.

Thousands of people listen to the group of young 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)

Even if the current government tried to defend itself by saying it has done more than previous governments, like bringing in a carbon tax or promising a plan that exceeds Canada's greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030, Reinhart-Smith said that falls short.

The "bar was set pretty low" when the Liberals came into power, he said, but taking steps in the right direction isn't enough.

"We need to be running full-on into the right direction because we have so little time left."

In his own area of Queens County, Reinhart-Smith knows many people in the forestry industry are nervous about shifting toward renewable sources, but underlined the intent is not to shut down everything immediately and leave people jobless.

Rather, he said the government should be looking to transition more quickly away from areas like the fossil fuel industry and into a green economy that has new, stable work opportunities for people across the country.

Reinhart-Smith and the others in the case were brought together by Our Children's Trust, a non-profit public interest law firm based in Oregon that has helped organize similar lawsuits in the United States and elsewhere.

The plaintiffs are from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.

With files from Information Morning, Phlis McGregor, What on Earth and Sarah Lawrynuik