As atmospheric carbon continues to rise, fifteen Canadian youth are waiting to hear if their voices will be heard in court, in La Rose et al, v. Her Majesty the Queen.
The case highlights the intergenerational equity aspect of climate change, La Rose et al. arguing that the youth are already being harmed by climate change, and that the federal government is violating their rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section seven of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to protect essential public trust resources. The youth plaintiffs also allege that Canada’s conduct violates their right to equality under section 15 of the Charter, since youth are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.
On July 10, 2020, attorneys for the federal government filed a motion to stop the youth’s case – initially filed October 25, 2019 – from going to court. Fast forward to February 2023, the youth’s attorneys spent two days setting out reasons why the case should be allowed to proceed to trial before the Panel of Federal Appeal. The youth are now waiting for a conclusion.
“All we are arguing is that the government must uphold what is basically required for survival,” says nineteen-year-old Ira Reinhart-Smith. Otherwise, the industries and “organizations that are causing these mass destructions and mass changes will never be held accountable.”
All of the youth in La Rose et al. were involved with their own climate activism throughout Canada, says Reinhart-Smith. He attended the International Baccalaureate program at Lester Pearson College, and upon graduation, enjoyed focusing on the environmental aspects of marine science. Children’s Trust, a non-profit public interest law firm that provides legal services to youth from diverse backgrounds to secure their legal rights to a safe climate, reached out to Reinhart-Smith and the other youth to work together on this case.
It was an exciting opportunity to scale up the activism that I was doing, which was a lot of protest, a lot of speaking to politicians, a lot of writing letters,” he says. Over time, it just built up “a lot of frustration. We could see that change was not happening fast enough and therefore the courts had to be the answer – because we didn’t know what else to do. We feel like we have tried every single avenue.”
The youth are supported by two other organizations: Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation and The David Suzuki Foundation, which is the lead Canadian environmental non-governmental organization partner.
“Not only has the federal government actively contributed to climate change, it has also failed to exercise its jurisdiction to prevent greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our safety,” states Becca Kram, communications specialist at The David Suzuki Foundation. “It continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry and maintains direct control over fossil fuel transport, export, and import. The government has also failed to meet all five emissions-reduction targets it has set.”
The lawsuit asks the Federal Court of Canada to declare that the government’s conduct violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Kram explains. Preparing and implementing a climate recovery plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions would decarbonize Canada’s energy system – which would line up with what scientists say is necessary to stabilize the climate system and protect the rights of youth. “This would require the government to curb their reliance on fossil fuels, invest in clean electricity, stop safeguarding polluting industry giants and set more ambitious climate targets,” says Kram.
Listening to youth
Reinhart-Smith observes it’s been interesting to see how the case has changed over time. The youth’s ages span from 10-19 years old at the time of filing. As the case hinges around the experiences the youth are individually facing in their daily lives, different elements have shifted as they youth continue to develop – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Impacts range from asthma to fibromyalgia, from food security and culture to home and shelter. To have a case that’s lasting over multiple years “has really created an interesting dynamic in the case as we all become more educated and more mature and I’d like to say, more varied in the way that we’re thinking about environmental activism.”
Although the youth’s lawyers had advised the youth that the government would likely ask the courts to dismiss the case, it was still frustrating, says Reinhart-Smith. “It seems so against what they’ve been preaching for every single election. You know, ‘we care about this, we want to change this. We are listening to the youth.’”
As Becca Kram points out, “Young people will inherit the planet and bear the brunt of environmental challenges caused by the climate crisis, so their voices are pivotal in shaping policies and practices that prioritize solutions to the climate crisis.” With fifteen youth represented from all across Canada telling the government what needs to change and how they want to change it, Reinhart-Smith says it feels like they are saying, “‘No, this is stupid. We don’t want to listen to this. At this point, the justice system is the only one that can hold the government accountable.”
While Reinhart-Smith’s panic has eased up, the fear remains, he says. “Humans need solace. We need a way to know that we’re going to be okay. But I think that can be derived from action.” What’s most important to him is “for us to just be recognizing these people, these places – they’re under a threat, and therefore we must take action and we must contact those who have the power to make the changes…. I think a shift is coming.”
“Parts per million are still rising – but so is people’s awareness of this,” says Reinhart-Smith. So even if their case is ignored by the government entirely, he’s “still extremely proud of how much we’ve just connected to people. If everyone is working together on these multifaceted issues, intersectionality is going to allow for a lot of amazing things to happen.”
“And a lot of amazing things are happening. I’ve seen so much good in a lot of these circles. That gives me strength to keep going, hope for the future, which is a necessity in all of this.”
This story is the first in a series of profiles of young activists.