Looking backjust a few years ago, the youth involved in suing the government of Ontario didn’t think they’d be where they are today.
The seven young activists range in age from 13 to 24 and come from all walks of life — students, entrepreneurs and everything in between. Now they’re suing the Ontario government, hoping the politicians will reverse some of their recent decisions around greenhouse gas emission and climate change.
Mathur et. al. v. Her Majesty in Right of Ontario is the only time a Canadian Court has recognized that the harms caused by climate change can engage our Charter protected rights to life, liberty and security of the person.
“We all really get along,” says one of the applicants, Beze Gray from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ont. “We’re having a lot of fun. It’s nice to not have to go through this alone. It’s nice that we come from such different backgrounds and that we are different ages. We’re all still youth — and we definitely all still act like it!”
Most of the youth didn’t know each other before the case started. Gray became involved with the case through Ecojustice, an environmental group that backed the court challenge, from previous work between their community and the organization.
“I was really happy to be invited into the opportunity,” says Gray. “It’s so important for Indigenous people to be shown in court and represented in something so important as climate change.”
The case was initially filed in November 2019. A year later, on Nov. 12, 2020, Ontario courts ruled that the lawsuit can proceed, after the Ontario government previously tried to have it dismissed in a motion to strike.
Fraser Thompson, a lawyer with Ecojustice, says being able to proceed is a significant victory and a “historic decision,” backed by these seven youth who “know the science.”
“They know we’re running out of time,” says Thompson. “They see youth around the world going to the courts and showing the courts the threats posed by climate change. They’re asking the courts to do their jobs to protect the rights of citizens.”
According to Thompson, there are a few cases elsewhere in the world where citizens are holding their courts to account for climate injustices, but there’s no real precedent in the Ontario legal system. A similar case brought by youth against the Canadian federal government was recently dismissed.
Alexandra Neufeldt, a 24-year-old small business owner in Ottawa, contacted Ecojustice to get involved but wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I figured it would be kind of quick, but I didn’t anticipate the motion to strike and then of course the pandemic, which has made things take even longer,” says Neufeldt. When the federal case was dismissed, she didn’t panic.
“Ours didn’t go the same way, but it was nerve wracking and a bit discouraging. We thought maybe it was a bad omen, but it all worked out.”
Gray says what they’ve learned the most is that the court system is nothing like what you see on television.
“It’s definitely time consuming and it’s a lot of work,” says Gray. “It’s a whole process, but it’s been a lot of fun too.”
Neufeldt says what they’re fighting for specifically is a better target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — necessary, she says, to prevent “catastrophic climate change.”
“We also want to educate people about climate change, and spark awareness. We already have [legal precedence] so that’s already a big win in my books.”
According to Thompson, the group is hopeful they’ll get to a hearing soon.
“Every day counts,” says Thompson. “The science says we have less than 10 years to take serious action.”