Every spring, Beze Gray collects maple water and maple syrup near their home in Aamjiwnaang First Nation, just south of Sarnia, Ontario.
Maple syrup needs below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures in the day to flow freely. But as spring days fluctuate from historic cold spells to unseasonal highs, sugar bushing has become much harder to do consistently.
“I really want future generations to be able to practice and learn culture just like I'm doing today,” they say. “But hopefully feeling less of those impacts that I feel.”
It’s one reason why they, along with six other young Ontarians, are taking the provincial government to court.
Last week, the Ontario Court of Justice started hearing arguments to determine whether the Ford government’s decision to weaken climate targets violates the Charter rights of Ontarian youth, and generations to come. It’s part of a growing movement of young people who are using the court system to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis.
Ecojustice, an environmental law charity, helps Canadian citizens enforce environmental rights through the courts. Its team of lawyers is representing the applicants, who range in age from 15 to 27.
“The science is clear. We need to significantly reduce emissions in the next eight years to prevent catastrophic climate change,” says Danielle Gallant, one of the lawyers representing the seven applicants. “Ecojustice is supporting these youth applicants because taking the government to court is one of the last remaining options that we have to face down the climate crisis.”
In 2018, the Ford government repealed the existing Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act, which set strong emissions reduction targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050. Ecojustice says the replacement target, which aims to reduce emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, is “significantly weaker.”
Ecojustice’s lawyers are arguing that this change violates future generations of Ontarians right to life, security and equality. In the Ford government’s written submissions, its lawyers argue that the Charter does not guarantee any particular emissions target, and that the applicants have no standing to seek relief for future generations.
One of the experts testifying on behalf of the Ontario government is a well-known climate change denier. William van Wijngaarden is a York University physics professor, who previously worked closely with one of Donald Trump’s White House skeptics. In his submission, he cast doubt that greenhouse gas emissions are linked to catastrophic weather events, which contradicts the consensus by the world’s climate scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Van Wijngaarden supported the government's argument that the province has only a minor role in the global climate,” CBC reports.
All of the applicants in the Ontario case have their own reasons for joining a court process that may, if it is appealed, take years.
Alex Neufeldt, a 26-year-old from Ottawa, On., has seen devastating storms rip through her community. “I am a young entrepreneur, and storms like this mean lost business,” she said in a press conference on Sept. 11 in Toronto. “People have more urgent things to do, understandably, than shopping for non-essential items when their power is out or a tree has fallen on their home. And yet, I still have to pay my rent.”
Madison Dyck, a climate activist from Thunder Bay, has seen blueberries disappear from the forests around where he lives. “The dramatic lack of blueberries last summer…was frustrating for many in my community and surrounding communities,” she says. “And the black bears were just as confused.”
Dyke has a fire evacuation plan in case of wildfires — something many more people may need in the future. “My greatest hope is to be a grandmother,” she adds. “And for young ones to experience the world around them in a sense of awe, not shadowed by anxiety.”
Young people worldwide have started to use courts to push their governments to improve environmental protections and fight climate change.
In 2020, a German court sided with a group of youth who sued the government for not setting ambitious enough climate targets. In its decision, the court noted that the burden of halting climate change could not be offloaded on future generations. In Colombia in 2018, 25 youth plaintiffs saw a case through to the Supreme Court that forced the government to come up with a plan to stop deforestation of the Amazon. And in the United States, at least one youth-led lawsuit is proceeding to trial in Montana. It’s the first case to do so in America, where, according to Teen Vogue, other cases have usually faced dismissal. It’s also especially challenging to bring forward legal action in states where resource extraction is one of the biggest generators of revenue. But this may signal that some U.S. courts are ready to hear arguments on the government’s responsibility to mitigate climate change.
“Around the world, it is young people who are leading the fight against the climate emergency,” says Gallant. “Legal challenges of government action on climate change have become a powerful tool for young people to demand change.”
Shelby Gagnon, an artist and community activist working on Indigenous food sovereignty in northern Ontarian communities, says that she feels it's her responsibility to provide energy in the fight against climate change. “I think of my ancestors, who lived and sustained themselves off the land since time immemorial,” she says. “That gives me the energy to be involved in this case.”
All the applicants are united in wanting to ensure a better future for all. “I feel the importance of doing this process, and the importance the case will have on future generations,” says Gray.