Wildlands League and Ontario Nature, represented by Lara Tessaro and Anastasia Lintner, were at the Ontario Court of Appeal recently appealing the troubling decision by a lower court that puts already endangered species at further risk of extinction. We’ll keep you posted on a decision.
In the meantime, we thought we’d ask Lara and Anastasia a few burning questions. They inspire us and we thought they might inspire you too.
Here are Lara’s answers in Part One. Ana’s can be found in Part Two.
Why do you do this work? What motivates you?
Working on behalf of environmental and community groups has always been such a joy and a privilege. My clients inspire me daily with their commitment, their cunning and their creativity. And I’ve vastly enjoyed learning, over the years, how to go about holding governments accountable for their unlawful decisions in this country’s courts.
Of course, the law is no panacea for remedying environmental harms or solving environmental challenges. But the law can help us to imagine and to strive for justice. I am motivated by the idea that, with the legal skills that I’ve tried to hone over the years, I can do my part to protect wildlife, wild places and the people who care about them.
Why on earth did you take this appeal for free?
I began working on this issue with a number of environmental groups, who were concerned with the Ontario government’s then-proposed regulation depriving endangered species of legal protections, back in early 2013. And I’ve remained committed to this battle ever since – first, in efforts to persuade the Minister of Natural Resources to comply with the law, and, when the government disregarded these concerns and forced through this problematic regulation, in litigation before the courts. Throughout, it has been such a pleasure to work with Wildlands League and Ontario Nature, and with my wonderful co-counsel Anastasia Lintner. While we took this appeal on a pro bono basis, I am hopeful that our efforts will pay off for Ontario’s wildlife.
What do you think of the legal process when it comes to environmental issues and holding our governments to account?
The law is just one of many tools that citizens have to hold their governments to account, but, sometimes, it can be a crucial tool. Many environmental laws in Canada are weak, toothless, and difficult for citizens to enforce. However, other environmental laws – such as various statutes aimed protecting at-risk species – have the potential to create meaningful change. Unfortunately, that potential can be frustrated by government officials who resist implementing those laws or seek to evade environmental duties. In those situations, despite the expense and risk, sometimes going to court is the only option that environmentalists have left.
What made you want to become a lawyer?
I was more than halfway through law school before realizing that I actually wanted to practice law! I had spent a rewarding summer, in 2001, at what was then called Sierra Legal Defence Fund. I helped to protect spotted owls from logging, advocate for log salvors on the Fraser River, and advise activists on how speak out while avoiding defamation claims. That summer gave me a taste for legal advocacy and public interest litigation.
What’s your favourite endangered or threatened species in Ontario? In Canada? Why?
For reasons that *might* later become apparent, my favourite at-risk species in Ontario are currently the Toothcup and the Virginia Mallow. These are two beautiful flowering herbs that grow along sandy river shorelines; both now exist in Ontario only on a couple of small remaining sites.
Having grown up in northwest BC, and having spent a decade in Vancouver, I remain smitten with the trees, fish, fungi and other creatures of the coastal temperate rainforest and the Pacific ocean. Perhaps my favourite at-risk species is the Pacific humpback whale. While they still face many threats, from shipping traffic to fishing gear to pollution, they are on a real comeback – a remarkable example of resilience and recovery.
What should the public know about this case?
One thing that astounds me about this case is the sheer breadth of the regulation that we are challenging. The Wynne government did not just weaken legal protections for a handful of at-risk species or for a few industrial activities. Rather, in May 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources persuaded Premier Wynne and her Cabinet to strip away legal protections for every single endangered species and every single threatened species in Ontario – such that not one species kept the right not to be killed. I have always found that breathtakingly offensive and hubristic.
How important is this case? Why does it matter?
This appeal is the first time that the Ontario Court of Appeal will interpret the Endangered Species Act, 2007. As put by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, the ESA is the “last line of defence” for Ontario’s most vulnerable wildlife. When government officials misinterpret and weaken that law, as we’ve argued has occurred here, the government further imperils wildlife already threatened with extinction. If Ontarians want endangered plants and animals to survive and recover, then protecting species must be the highest priority under the ESA. This case aims, in part, at that objective.
How can we thank you?
Just keep doing what you’re doing to protect Ontario’s most vulnerable wildlife — I’m counting on you!
Do you prefer canoeing or kayaking? Note: we ask this of everyone it’s an ongoing debate in our office.
To be honest, I’m a poor paddler. I probably shouldn’t confess to that, in this crowd. But I’ll go with canoeing – I’ve spent memorable days mucking about in canoes on lakes and creeks in BC, Ontario and Quebec. And as I recently learned, it is quicker to get to Ward Island (one of the Toronto islands) by canoe than by taking the ferry.