Prof. Lynda Collins is a member of GreenPAC’s Expert Panel, a diverse group of environmental academics from across the country. They have developed criteria to endorse political candidates who have demonstrated their environmental leadership. She is a member of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, with a background in legal approaches to toxic substances, including regulatory environmental law, toxic tort law, and the international law of environmental human rights. We sat down to chat about her career and how to use environmental law to prevent disasters.
How did you get your start in environmental law?
I started as an intern in a co-op program in law school. My environmental law professor was Stewart Elgie, probably the most famous environmental lawyer in Canadian history, and he founded what was then the Sierra Legal Defense Fund (it’s now Ecojustice Canada). I went and spent a term working for them.
Actually, at that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but while I was waiting to meet with Stewart on the first day, he had an important phone call, and so he gave me this book called Wild By Law, which is a photography book of all the places that Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in the U.S. saved through litigation. And I was just very fortunate, because I was flipping through that book and I had this sense of “Okay, this is how I’ll spend my life.
[After the internship], I went back as a summer student, then as an articling student, and finally as a lawyer — and I loved it. Ecojustice is an incredible organization, and I still work with them in various capacities. But at the the time, there wasn’t very much happening in the toxic tort side of environmental law in Canada. Toxic tort is suing polluters directly; Erin Brockovich is the most famous example that most people have heard of. I was really passionate about learning more about that field, so I went off to California to work for a start-up toxic tort firm that was involved in drinking water litigation, representing cities and states and counties that had contamination from gasoline additives. I spent two years in California and we sued every oil company operating in North America – so it was busy [laughs] and I learned a lot. But I also learned that I wanted to prevent environmental problems before they happen, and so I really wanted to do policy development, which is what got me into academia.
How would you describe the state of toxic tort law in Canada?
It’s a huge growth area. The plaintiff’s bar is really active. They have had mixed levels of success with the courts, which I think is because these cases raise a lot of complex scientific issues that the court have had some issues grappling with, but it’s certainly happening.
What would you like more Canadians to know about toxic substance laws?
I would like Canadians to be aware of their rights to environmental quality, and their right to products that are proven to be safe. Right now, most products are safe, but we don’t really demand proof of safety before products or pollutants are released into the atmosphere. It’s more that the onus is on the government or on the complainant to prove that it’s dangerous — but because of the complexity, that can take 100 years.
There are pollutants and products in the Canadian environment that are poorly understood and are probably harmful. I think that if people had a sense of entitlement to good health, clean air, and clean water it would change the political landscape and people would demand better data and more safety. Or in other cases we’d demand alternatives. For some products, we tolerate risks, like drugs — fair enough, there’s good reason to tolerate some risk for pharmaceuticals that might save your life. But other products have purely cosmetic benefits. And in the case of something like that, there’s not really a good case for tolerating much risk at all.
With the Nexen oil spill that took place on July 15, what kind of entitlements would you hope for for Canadians to protect from large-scale disasters?
The toxic tort side of things is mostly about addressing spills like [the Nexen pipeline oil spill] when they happen: providing compensation to people who may have lost their livelihood, or if their properties are contaminated. And it puts a price tag on it, which can have a very powerful deterrent effect for the future.
But what you really want is a strong regulatory system, which is why I’m interested in GreenPAC. It’s about prevention, and it’s certainly possible to do it: you can do regulatory environmental law at any level of quality from dysfunctional to superlative. And we’ve done some things well, but we could definitely do better. I think there’s no question, when you look at Canada’s environmental performance measured against other developed countries, we’re not doing very well at all. And there’s no reason for that. We have the technical ability, and widespread public commitment to environmental quality, so there’s no justifiable reason for the gap between what we could be doing and what we are doing.
Why do you think that Canadians should support GreenPAC?
I think that it’s past time for Canadians’ legislative frameworks to reflect their values. Biologically, it’s also clear that it’s necessary for our well-being, for our health, and even for the sustainability of our society into the future. And so all of the other Canadian values that we cherish — equality, healthcare — those all rest on the foundation of a sustainable society. In my mind, a sustainable society is the number one priority, and we’re failing on many levels.
And so, I think we need a credible, science-based organization that can give people guidance as to which candidates have a proven track-record of environmental leadership, because those are the people that you can have faith in. You can trust that when they get to Parliament, they’ll continue to be the people they’ve always been.
Anybody can say things on the campaign trail, and the environment is a campaign issue that sells. We expect people to say good things on the campaign trail. But what really counts to me is what somebody has done with their life to that point. That’s the best predictor of what they’re going to do once they’re in Parliament. So I think GreenPAC is an excellent model, and am thrilled to be part of the Expert Panel.