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Law for the land

Law for the land

Canada has been slow in coming to grips with climate change, but environmental lawyer Justin Duncan, Law’01, is warming up to the challenges of changing all that.
[photo of Justin Duncan, Law'01]A precedent-setting case successfully argued
in Federal Court by environmental lawyer
Justin Duncan, Law’01, recently made
headlines across Canada.

Justin Duncan has big plans for the next decade. He wants to set more environmental law precedents in Canada, and he hopes to “kick the government’s butt on climate change issues.”

Judging by what he has accomplished so far this year alone, he just might ­succeed on both counts. In April, Justin ­argued and won a precedent-setting case against the federal government.

That ­decision, which made headlines across the country, compels Ottawa to report one of Canada’s largest sources of pollution: millions of tones of toxic mine tailings and waste rock from mining operations across the country.

“When we calculated how much pollution is being released from metal mines each year, we found it would cover all of the Greater Toronto Area. That doesn’t even include tailings from tar sands,” he says.

Justin was the lead counsel on the Federal Court lawsuit, filed in 2007 by his firm, Ecojustice, on behalf of the environmental groups MiningWatch Canada and Great Lakes United. The action alleged that the Minister of the Environment broke the law when he failed to ­collect and report pollution information from mines in Canada under the National Pollutant Release Inventory, a web site that allows citizens to punch in their postal code and search for local industrial facilities and their pollutant releases.

The Court’s strongly worded decision described the government’s pace on the issue as “glacial” and chastised federal politicians and bureaucrats for “turning a blind eye” to the issue for “more than 16 years.”

The court ruling was Justin’s greatest victory thus far. It was also his greatest relief. “It’s always a gamble going to court. You’re not sure how it’s going to go. It had been two years worth of work, and 20 years for our clients. We were wondering, is that all going to go down the tubes with the court ruling?”

Surprisingly, the government did not appeal the decision. “Next up is to make sure the public knows the extent of the pollution and then to engage in a conversation with the people we work with and with government officials to decide what can be done to reduce the hazards ­associated with mines,” says Justin.

We need a whole societal shift on how we live from day to day.

Ecojustice has several other cases pending against the federal government, and the organization hopes to make climate change a major focus in Canada. “It’s critical,” says Justin “We need a whole societal shift on how we live from day to day.”

Another major case is a lawsuit he filed this spring on behalf of Sierra Club Canada. That action challenges the Conservative government’s waiver of federal environmental assessments on up to 2,000 infrastructure projects.

Ottawa claims such shortcuts are justified since they speed up the delivery of dollars; Justin and his team disagree. “If temporary things aren’t challenged, they tend to become permanent,” he says.

While there is a lot to be challenged these days, Justin strives to maintain a work-life balance. “I try to stay sane,” he says. “My wife and I have a two-year-old, so I try to keep reasonable hours. This is a long game; sometimes you have to keep at things for decades.”

It was a little more than a decade ago that Justin was still trying to decide what to do with his life after earning his undergrad degree. He has been passionate about the environment since he was a boy growing up in Grimsby, Ontario, working on local farms and exploring Niagara ­Escarpment forests.

In his teenage years, a book he read about the Earth Summit meetings in Rio sparked his interest in how environmental issues could be addressed through legal agreements. He eventually decided to pursue a career in environmental law and applied to Queen’s law school, where he volunteered at the Student Legal Aid clinic for three years.

Says Justin, “I think there’s a clear connection between environmental justice and societal justice.”

He cites climate change as a clear ­example of this connection. “The UN ­predicts that millions of the world’s poor will become environmental refugees because of drought and rising sea levels.

Clearly, rich countries such as Canada need to take a leadership role on climate change. Unfortunately we haven’t done so. Not yet,” he says.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-4 cover]