Ontario youth have their day in court in historic climate Charter case

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SUDBURY—Sudbury’s Sophia Mathur, the 15-year-old climate activist, is one of seven Ontario youth who are suing the Ontario government for weakening Ontario’s 2030 climate target which was set by the previous government. The youth were in court last week in this historic climate case based on rights protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In November 2020, the Superior Court affirmed their right to pursue the case, ruling that the climate crisis does threaten fundamental rights protected under the Charter and therefore, Canadian citizens can challenge their governments’ climate failures on constitutional grounds.

In the ruling, Justice Carole J. Brown wrote, “This case is of public interest in that it transcends the interest of all Ontario residents, not just the applicants’ generation or the ones that follow.” 

The Ford government filed to have the case dismissed but the motion was denied.

Ecojustice and lawyers from Stockwood LLP are representing the seven youth. In a press release, Ecojustice stated, “These young people in court today are part of an international movement challenging governments’ irresponsible climate actions through the legal system. In Germany, Colombia, Pakistan, the United States, and many other countries, young people have gone to court to demand that governments step up to the plate and do more to secure a safe and sustainable future for them and future generations.”

Ms. Mathur had first learned about the concept of the case from one in the US. “I thought it was a really interesting concept that we could go at the government for not taking enough action on climate change,” she said.

Previously, Ms. Mathur had “gone at the government” through protests and lobbying. “I never realized that was a way we could approach it, a way that is possible and a way that we could win and make the Ontario government under law take action.”

Ms. Mathur and her mother Cathy Orlando, herself a climate advocate and program director with Citizens’ Climate International (CCI), were in Toronto on September 12, the first day of the three-day trial. “It was empowering to watch the youth who were able to sit on camera with the Ontario government and the judge and their lawyers as they were introduced,” Ms. Orlando told The Expositor.

Ms. Mathur said it felt almost surreal to finally see the case in court. She started writing her affidavit at age 11. The case was launched in 2019.

As a mother and an activist, Ms. Orlando has complex feelings about her daughter’s participation. “The world is in peril, but this problem is solvable,” she said. “I never imagined any of my daughters would be out on the front lines because it’s pretty stressful.”

“How do I feel? She (Sophia) wants to do it. I can’t make that child do anything she doesn’t want to do so this is what she wants to do and she’s doing it,” said Ms. Orlando. “As somebody who’s seen so many climate activists, not all get through this okay. It’s a bit terrifying.”

“Ecojustice really supports us in our journey, the legal advice and the community,” Ms. Orlando said. They also have a supportive community in Sudbury and in CCI. “So we have people around us that keep us grounded and community around us that keeps us grounded. I want to especially thank Ecojustice and all their funders because this is not an easy task for these youth and they take really good care of us. They make sure every time we move forward, people are comfortable. That’s a complex thing to do with seven young people but they’ve done an amazing job.”

There’s a wide age gap and wide life experiences between the youth. One is an entrepreneur whose business has been impacted by climate change and another lives in “chemical valley” by Sarnia, Ms. Orlando explained. “We have people who live remotely in the woods. We have a university student doing her masters. It’s really a wide spread of kids: a kid from downtown Toronto, a kid from Sudbury, kids living in the forest. It’s pretty wild, and they’re all amazing young people. They’re beautiful. I felt so blessed to be part of their world.”

It could take months before a decision is reached but Ms. Orlando said that no matter what happens, the lawyers did a fantastic job. “This case is already being studied by legal experts,” she said. “It’s already in many legal circles. Even if we lose they have moved that ball down the field. And no matter what, the kids are just not going to give up. This is their future and there’s going to come a point where we’re going to really seriously have to have plans to get off fossil fuels and it’s going to need to be in a way that won’t cause social disruption. It’s not a choice. It’s coming, and this is just one of the many tools.”

Ms. Mathur is nervous, excited and hopeful about the outcome. “We’re finally going to court after all these years,” she said. “Regardless of whether we win or lose, the people of Ontario that are watching this case are realizing that the Ontario government is not taking enough action to protect our future. So even if we don’t win, we still would have raised awareness across Ontario and maybe telling people that the Ford government is not worth voting for.”

This case was about the changing of the targets previously set by the previous government, noted Ms. Mathur. “I’m mostly concerned about the fact that they aren’t doing much of anything at all to protect our future from the climate crisis. I feel like in general the scientists are saying that the actions of the Ford government are not enough to protect our future and help in solving climate change across Canada and also across the world.”

A victory could set a precedent under the Constitution that no government in Canada can take action that contributes to the climate crisis without potentially violating Charter rights, said Ecojustice. “Our clients are following a long tradition of turning to the Charter at pivotal moments in the fight for justice. In the past, the Charter has been instrumental in making Canadian society more just and equitable by securing rights to same sex marriage, abortion, and numerous other rights.”