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This week, we are taking a closer look into environmental law. There are a lot of debates going on around the world regarding climate change and how States should react to it. In Quebec, there has been a lot of debates and concerns especially around pipelines projects and hydrocarbons.
This feature offers a closer look on Quebec Environmental Law Center, a Montreal-based organization that has been very active regarding these issues recently.
Progressive Lawyer: Please Introduce Yourself and describe your role in the Quebec Environmental Law Center.
Karine Péloffy: My name is Karine Péloffy, I am a lawyer and the Executive Director of the Quebec Environmental Law Center (“CQDE”).
PL: Why was the Center created? What issues does it confront?
KP: The Center was founded in 1989 by Me Michel Bélanger and other lawyers who were among the first people in Quebec to be interested in protecting the environment from a legal point of view. The CQDE was founded to promote the use of the law as an essential tool to protect the interests of citizens, nature and the environment.
Historically, the Center has been active on several major environmental issues such as mining as far back as 1991 and again in 2013, the attempt to privatise Mont Orford national park in 2010, blue-green algae, the anti-SLAPP law, the Suroît thermal plant, and shale gas exploitation. We also discuss major themes such as the conservation of natural habitats, protection of water and the fight against climate change.
The Center tries to act in real time on rising environmental issues. For example, for the summer of 2014 we went to court repeatedly to protect the beluga whales with an injunction against preliminary drilling by TransCanada which intended to establish an oil port in their critical habitat.
Lately, the organization has been working primarily on the exploitation and transport of fossil fuels and the protection of endangered species.
PL: What services does the Quebec Environmental Law Center offer? Who is its primary clients / audience?
KP: We operate on three different angles:
– With citizens who directly call out to the Center: we answer their questions related to the legal aspects of environmental problems they are facing;
– We present briefs to parliamentary and other governmental commissions regarding bills related to environmental issues. About fifty such submissions have been presented by the Center over the years;
– We take legal procedures to enforce environmental law and to promote its evolution through jurisprudence.
Our target audience is essentially everyone in Québec, though we don’t tend to attract many large polluters…
PL: Are your services free? How does the CQDE finance its activities?
KP: We help many citizens pro bono and adapt our paid services to the financial ability of customers so as to remain accessible.
In terms of judicial proceedings, however, there are often significant costs associated, even though we work with several volunteer lawyers. There are often expert fees in environmental cases and we can be liable to court costs in case of defeat. Our funding is based on donations from the public and on paid legal mandates, as well as researches that we are hired to perform or conferences we offer.
But let’s be frank, the CQDE has modest resources and tries to make miracles happen with almost nothing. We are currently in a fundraising campaign for our 25th anniversary, in order to ensure the sustainability of the organization and to offer more free services. You can find 25 good reasons to support the CQDE at 25bonnesraisons.org. Please give generously!
PL: How do you utilize the law as a tool to further your organizational goals?
KP: The development of environmental law itself is part of our organizational goals. In the past, some cases were prioritized because their legal stakes were high in terms of establishing precedents, although their impact on the ground was less important.
However, we are evolving in a very particular and disturbing context now. Whether we consider the extinction of endangered species, the loss of key wetlands, or the threat posed by climate change, the environment – and humans who depend on it – are in urgent need of protection. Yet, the law that is supposed to protect them is also in crisis, often sacrificed in favor of short term profits and projects.
The federal government has dismantled the environmental legislative framework. During this last year, the provincial government has adopted special legislative measures in order to invalidate court cases we had brought concerning specific projects in which the government was also an investor.
In this distressing context, we are just trying to save as much as we can. We intervene in extremis to try to save endangered species such as the chorus frog and the St. Lawrence beluga whale. Now, given the global environmental emergency, the practice is shifting and sometimes we prioritize issues where we use the law as a tool to protect the environment in itself from imminent threats that can have irreversible consequences.
But we cannot forever remain on the defensive. In 2015, we are shifting to the offensive with innovative legal solutions and proposals…stay tuned!
PL: How would you describe the interrelation between politics and law in the course of the CQDE activities, or environmental law in general?
KP: Environmental law does exist on paper, but often it is not enforced due to political and economic considerations. Even when we present purely legal arguments that convince judges, some of our opponents still try to discredit us at the political level because they see us as a threat to their economic interests.
The CQDE has never received recurrent funding from the government. Past offers were often conditional on the CQDE committing not to sue the government if it failed to apply the law. These offers were rejected in order to remain independent and not to limit its role as the environment’s legal watchdog.
PL: What role do legal professionals play in CQDE?
KP: There are two paid lawyers who work full-time within the Center, including myself. There is also the founder and chairman, Me Michel Bélanger, who is providing constant guidance and advice. And there are dedicated jurists. At times we also have technical legal interns, Bar interns and legal clinic students who contribute a lot to the Center’s work. Furthermore, we have a network of volunteer lawyers and members of the board who volunteer their time and energy with us.
Legal professionals who perform work for the CQDE do legal research, representation in court, draft procedures, basically everything that a lawyer would do in private practice but more user-friendly and most of the time for free. I am extremely inspired by the lawyers who are involved with us, and many tell me that it is the most fulfilling part of their professional lives.
PL: How would a legal professional pursue a career with your organization? What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in environmental law?
KP: Unfortunately at this time we have very limited financial resources and the paid positions are very rare. However, as aforementioned, we regularly receive interns and work with volunteer lawyers. We are very open and collaborative. It is easier for us to work with people who are in the Montreal area, but remote work is also possible. We soon hope to have more resources to hire more lawyers; in fact, that is the main goal of the 25bonnesraisons.org fundraiser.
(Here is the link to be involved with the CQDE – the form is in French only).
In terms of advice for someone who would like to work in environmental law, I would say persevere and insist.
PL: Do you believe it is essential to have a scientific or environmental background for a lawyer who wants to work in this field?
KP: Personally, I started with law school and then multidisciplinary environmental studies, which were focused on understanding various environmental issues from different angles.
The field of environmental law is characterized by a heavy reliance on scientific expertise. The challenge is to translate that expertise, which can sometimes appear to be overly complex and can present a high degree of uncertainty regarding causation and the balance of probabilities, into applicable law. Because of this, an environmental or scientific background is a good tool, but it is not an absolute necessity.
There are many lawyers who practice in environmental law, and most practice on the business side. For someone who wants to work on the side of protecting the environment only, I would say that it is not necessarily the academic credentials but rather the dedication, courage and determination that will be decisive.
PL: How do you balance your work life with your private life?
KP: It is a bit hard for me to answer that question because I am fairly new to my position and my work fascinates me. We are currently working on huge cases in which we are not on equal terms with all of our opponents; therefore we have to take double bites. It is even more difficult when we are working on injunctions. It is a constant struggle to take time for yourself and not to tire yourself. However, when we are doing a job that you are so passionate about, I do not see long hours as a bad thing in itself, as long as you do not become exhausted. I also do yoga to manage my stress and try to spend time in nature, just to remind me of why I do all this!
PL: Outside of your organization, what issues are you particularly passionate about?
KP: What has led me to work at CQDE and in the environmental field is the fight against climate change. For me, climate change is humanity’s existential crisis: it forces us to redefine what constitutes progress, the “good life”, justice, etc.
On the legal plane, only the tip of the iceberg is visible at the moment and I believe the law will evolve a lot in order to cope and adapt to this new reality.
I also have a lot of admiration for the citizen mobilization around these issues in Quebec, and worldwide. On a topic that is sometimes difficult to be optimistic about, citizen engagement gives me a lot of hope.
PL: What do you think the role of law and lawyers should be in society?
KP: To further justice. Law does not always reach justice and sometimes moves away from it. I think it is our most fundamental duty as lawyers to further the notion of justice, to make it more and more inclusive, to make visible and remedy growing injustices and to ensure that the letter of the law evolves to account for and reflect our moral evolution.
For an overview of CQDE’s legal work, I invite you to read the following press releases on their website (in French only):