Program Spotlight: Strong Canadian Environmental Laws

At West Coast, we know that safeguarding the environment must be approached from multiple angles. One such angle is ensuring that current and proposed federal environmental laws are just and sustainable.

We asked Ottawa-based Staff Lawyer Anna Johnston a few questions about the Strong Canadian Environmental Laws Program at West Coast, recent milestones, and why this work is necessary.

Hi Anna! When did you join the West Coast team?

In June 2013 – ten years ago! I’d say that I’m officially part of the furniture except that I’m based in Ottawa, so maybe I’m part of the virtual furniture? 

What is West Coast's Strong Canadian Environmental Laws program?

West Coast’s Strong Canadian Environmental Laws program is about securing strong federal environmental laws and ensuring that the government implements them well. 

My work right now revolves around three main areas: Securing a new federal biodiversity accountability law for Canada, amending, and implementing the Impact Assessment Act, and establishing and implementing climate laws and policies that will help Canada set and achieve a more ambitious emissions reduction target.    

What is the goal of this work? Why is it necessary?

The main goal is to prevent environmental harms before they happen and ensure that existing issues are addressed.

A federal biodiversity accountability law would help make sure that Canada meets its international obligations to halt and reverse nature loss.  Biodiversity is critical to our and the planet’s survival, but it is in crisis, with species declining at an alarming rate in Canada. An accountability law would enshrine our biodiversity targets in law and hold government to account for meeting them. A law would also require regular, detailed public reporting on progress towards meeting our targets, including any measures needed to course correct if we are not on track.    

Impact assessment is a “look before you leap” law that helps ensure that we understand the impacts, risks and benefits of projects so that we can make informed decisions about whether and how projects should go ahead. It can help Indigenous peoples decide whether to grant their free, prior and informed consent, and is one of our best tools for letting the public have a say about decisions that affect them.    

Our work to secure strong federal climate laws is aimed at making sure Canada does its part to reduce emissions by setting ambitious targets and establishing the plans and mechanisms for meeting those targets. We’ve seen some progress in recent years, but emissions from the oil and gas sector continue to rise and we need to bend that curve to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis.

What are some recent milestones for the Strong Canadian Environmental Laws Program?    

  1. In March 2023 West Coast, representing ourselves and Nature Canada, intervened at the Supreme Court of Canada in Alberta’s legal challenge against the Impact Assessment Act. During the hearing, we argued that the court should recognize federal jurisdiction to take a careful look at the potential risks of projects that could harm health, climate, and the environment.  

    The Court’s opinion in the fall of 2023 that the Impact Assessment Act is unconstitutional was definitely a mixed result. The Court incorporated a lot of the submissions we made during our intervention into its decision, so we got some important wins. At the same time, we have work to do to address the issues the Court flagged while also ensuring that project reviews are rigorous and fair.    
  2. Having played a central role in the enactment of the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, we tracked its implementation to make sure that this climate law holds the federal government to account for meeting 2030 and 2050 climate goals.  

    In August 2023, West Coast met with officials to outline our recommendations for how the first progress report under the Act could meet the requirements and spirit of the Act and ensure Canadians have a clear picture of whether we are on track to meeting our emissions targets and if not, what government will do to course-correct.  
  3. We had two big announcements in December 2023: the federal government released a proposed framework for its oil and gas emissions cap and announced that it will enact a biodiversity accountability act in the same week. It will be a busy year, but an exciting one as we work on making sure those two laws are as strong as possible.  
  4. Another recent milestone (January 2024) was our intervention in Mathur v R., a youth climate case before the Ontario Court of Appeal. The youth are challenging Ontario’s weak climate target and plan as infringing their constitutional right to life, liberty and security of the person and right to equality. Because the case could set an important precedent for our BC and federal climate work we intervened to argue that where government actions are cumulatively infringing constitutional rights, they have an obligation to establish mechanisms to ensure that those effects are within constitutionally-permissible bounds.

What excites you about this work?   

The current federal government wants expert advice on how to deliver on its climate and biodiversity goals. It is exciting to see West Coast’s recommendations reflected in environmental laws. And the people I get to collaborate with are terrific. Working in coalitions with policy experts, campaigners and organizers working to advance environmental legal protection and uphold Indigenous rights is definitely a highlight of my work.

  • To learn more about advancing a federal biodiversity accountability law read Anna’s reflections in this blog post
  • To learn more about the Impact Assessment decision, watch Anna Johnston’s analysis in this video or check out her detailed blog post
  • To learn more about the December 2023 oil and gas emissions cap announcement check out this blog by Staff Lawyer Andrew Gage

To support West Coast’s work, please make a donation today. 

West Coast Environmental Law Program Spotlight Series:

West Coast Environmental Law