West Coast’s summer law students share their thoughts

West Coast's 2017 Summer Law Students (left-right): Don Couturier, Nico McKay, Mari Galloway, Karyn Leslie, Matt Hammer.

Each summer the West Coast Environmental Law office is filled with new energy when we welcome a new cohort of law students from schools across the country. This year, our five talented students worked alongside West Coast lawyers on a wide range of projects – from analyzing legal challenges over the Kinder Morgan pipeline to researching the vibrant legal traditions of Indigenous nations participating in our RELAW project.

Here are some of the students’ reflections from summer 2017:

Karyn Leslie

I have been incredibly fortunate to have the experience of both volunteering at West Coast Environmental Law through the Pro Bono Students Canada initiative during the school year and working as a summer law student. I have worked on varied and complex legal issues that have enlightened and challenged me, but most importantly align with my deepest values. Best of all, I have been able to work with lawyers who consistently impress me with their dedication to serving and building meaningful relations with Indigenous communities and acting as vigorous stewards of the environment.

On our first day of work here at West Coast, we sorted through claims brought by First Nations communities and other documents regarding Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion to contribute to an analysis of the legal risk facing the project. This riveting assignment also allowed us summer students to work together and cultivate strong relationships on day one.

Since then there have been numerous highlights. I helped Staff Counsel Gavin Smith research legislation and case law to draft a proposed amendment to a recently introduced bill, and helped in researching Indigenous legal principles from traditional stories for the RELAW project. I also attended Federal Court twice: first to observe and author a blog post on a case about community opposition to expansion of thermal coal shipments through the Lower Mainland, and second, to observe and document a judicial review application with Staff Counsel Erica Stahl.

The other main focus of my work this summer has been researching SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP legislation. Many of West Coast’s clients have been subject to this improper use of our legal system by plaintiffs – often large corporations – that seek to stifle public debate. This project allowed me to dive into a fascinating and topical issue that has had a significant impact on freedom of expression rights.

Overall, I have learned more than I ever expected working at West Coast Environmental Law — not only from the challenging work but by developing relationships with incredible people that truly inspire me. I cannot say enough about how wonderful my experience has been and how grateful I am to have worked at an organization I so admire.

Matt Hammer

How do you use the law to protect people and places? It's been clear to me this summer at West Coast Environmental Law that this is the question that drives the lawyers and staff who work here. I had just finished my first year of law school when I came to WCEL – a year best characterized as an avalanche of case law and legal principles. Working at WCEL has allowed me to put those principles into practice and see how lawyers who care about people and planet use them as tools, innovating and redefining the law in the process.

This summer I had the privilege of learning Indigenous stories to support research into Indigenous legal orders. All the summer students participated in staff training on how to find Indigenous law and precedent from stories. Working through a story and beginning to understand how to find the legal principles it holds was an eye-opening experience and incredibly informative on the different forms law can take. This was also a fundamentally important experience as our country and the legal profession begins to understand what reconciliation is.

I also had the opportunity to work on Aboriginal law issues, and climate litigation (co-writing this blog post, for instance). The research West Coast is doing is not only exciting and groundbreaking, but grounded. West Coast works with people protecting the places they care about and are tied to. I've seen this in connections with First Nations, non-profits, and individuals. It was evident throughout the summer – for example, when I had the opportunity to provide advice to an individual in British Columbia concerned about pesticide spraying, or when I attended a water ceremony by an Indigenous nation opposed to risky development on their territories.

The combination of cutting-edge legal research and passion, powered by connection to people and places, has made this summer such an amazing learning experience for me. The understanding that being a good lawyer means being able to find the right answers, but also doing it for the right reasons and with the right relationships, is something that I will take with me.

Mari Galloway

This summer was all about oceans for me. Upon arriving at West Coast in May, I hit the ground running, joining the Marine Protection team and supporting its work to protect our marine environments. Working with the marine team throughout the rest of the summer I had the chance to see West Coast’s innovative approach to law reform in action.

An early highlight was attending the Oceans20: Canada’s Oceans Act Workshop in Ottawa. Organized by WCEL and its partners, the workshop was an amazing opportunity to learn about marine protection and best practices. Throughout the two-and-a-half-day program, I had the chance to speak with participants about their experiences in ocean management, co-lead breakout sessions and learn from marine experts from around the world.

This workshop set the tone for the rest of my summer. Although disappointed by how much more protection our oceans need from us and our laws, I was continually motivated by the passion of those working beside me for better marine protections.

Over the next three months I worked closely with West Coast lawyers Linda Nowlan and Georgia Lloyd-Smith on a variety of marine topics, including: how to strengthen our Oceans Act; laws and legal frameworks to support Indigenous peoples’ rights to co-governance, including Indigenous involvement in marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world; and science-endorsed approaches to reaching our marine protection targets.

I want to thank both Linda and Georgia, and everyone at West Coast for a truly exciting and rewarding summer. Too often working in the environmental field I have found myself focusing on the challenges and not the solutions. Working with West Coast this summer I was inspired by the work of everyone on staff and by their positive attitude and impact on implementing environmental law reform. This is an organization whose work truly embodies its promise to transform environmental decision-making and strengthen legal protection for the environment through collaborative legal strategies that bridge Indigenous and Canadian law.

Nico McKay

Working for West Coast Environmental Law this summer has been an incredibly enlightening, challenging, and rewarding experience. My first week in the office involved briefing pleadings to the Federal Court of Appeal by several BC First Nations and municipal governments regarding the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, researching federal-provincial disputes relating to jurisdiction, and producing a memo about environmental assessment protocols used outside of Canada. The remainder of the summer’s assignments remained as exciting and diverse.

I am grateful to have been able to contribute to a number of projects relating to Indigenous law. I have been constantly challenged. The experience has led me to consider new ideas and concepts, diversify my legal research skills, and build the communication skills required to prioritize relationships in this dynamic, exciting, and vital area of law.

One of the most thought-provoking projects I undertook this summer involved examining where and how Indigenous nations might enforce their Indigenous laws regarding land and water stewardship. The top highlight of my summer was travelling with staff lawyer Hannah Askew to connect with a Squamish elder and trapper to support his efforts to protect his traditional trapline. It was an immense honour to listen, learn and observe the deep respect and reciprocity modelled by the lawyers, partners and clients at West Coast who seek to do good work responsibly and with integrity. 

One of the things that I loved the most about working at West Coast was the opportunity to engage with Canadian and Indigenous law on a multitude of levels: from researching and briefing Canadian court cases and statutory documents, to drawing out the Indigenous law embedded within traditional stories under the supervision of the extraordinary RELAW lawyers, I was immersed in the multi-juridical reality of the Canadian legal landscape. I had a fantastic summer and will return to my final year of law school inspired to bring my new experience forward into both the classroom and my future work as a lawyer. Thank you to the entire West Coast team for so generously sharing your expertise, knowledge and wisdom with us this summer!

Don Couturier

My summer at West Coast has been wonderful, thanks to the incredibly dedicated, passionate and kind staff who do some of the most forward-thinking and important legal work around. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a summer than to be immersed in Indigenous and environmental law alongside people who love what they do.

Under the guidance of Staff Counsel Hannah Askew, my main project was to collaborate with UBC to research and draft a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded knowledge synthesis report on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canada. The forthcoming report surveys academic literature on the subject, identifies gaps in knowledge, and proposes recommendations to government and academia on possible ways forward.

The most rewarding aspect of this exercise is the imagination required to think beyond the limits of Canadian law. At times these limits impede the full and authentic revitalization of Indigenous law. The challenge is to use our legal creativity to explore how the law can evolve to create a more just society based on mutual respect and partnership. This skill, which is the most important skill I developed this summer, will be invaluable in my career.

Karyn Leslie, Summer Law Student
Matt Hammer, Summer Law Student
Mari Galloway, Summer Law Student
Nico McKay, Summer Law Student
Don Couturier, Summer Law Student