Gone are the days when environmental law was practiced by hippies wearing beads and Birkenstocks. Devon Page isn’t wearing a suit and tie and he does appear “laid back” in his dog-friendly office in Vancouver’s Gastown. But the recently appointed executive director of Ecojustice Canada is anything but: the phones are ringing non-stop.
Ecojustice is a non-profit law firm representing private citizens, unions, municipalities and environmental organizations that don’t have the means to obtain counsel—a formidable task. Page explains how cases are accepted or rejected. “It has to be a significant environmental issue and then we ask two questions: can we contribute to a solution and can we establish a legal precedent that will work to protect the environment.
“”For example, we recently had two victories regarding the Kearl tar sands project (Pembina Institute et al. v. Attorney General (Canada) et al) which brought judicial and public scrutiny to one of the Canada’s most environmentally harmful industries,” says Page. “We’re also proud of our string of successful interventions at the Supreme Court that have helped protect the environment, such as the Spraytech case (Spraytech, Societe d’arrosage v. Hudson (Ville).”
As well, Page oversees the progress of his number one passion: the Spotted Owl case. (His office is littered with owl paraphernalia). “It is the most endangered species (only 16 remaining) in Canada and its plight is directly related to unsustainable logging in BC,” says Page. Because of the owl, Page morphed into a “Species at Risk” lawyer and brought the first case under the Species at Risk Act.
But there are more losses than wins and self-esteem is a struggle. “Frequently, our lawyers come back from court beaten and bedraggled, asking themselves why they are practicing environmental law,” says Page, “but we give ourselves regular pep talks and we rationalize: Canada and environmental law is in many ways an infant compared with Europe, so the court is often unused to the positions we take. For instance, I used the word ecosystem in court and had to explain its meaning…
“We come away from losses reconciled by the fact that we have improved the literacy of the judiciary; we gave notice to industry and government that we are an environmental watchdog; and we say the government isn’t working to protect the environment so here is a solution.”
Page found his passion for environmental law–from a degree in math –for three reasons. “I was born and raised in Saskatchewan and our family vacationed in the lake area every summer; that created in me a love of wilderness,” he says. “And during my undergrad in 1988, I found myself tree planting in the tar sands’ reclamation areas. It was a disaster–all the trees died in this big oily beach– and for the first time, I understood what environmental degradation really was.”
And the third reason: he worked as an assistant for the minister of education in the Saskatchewan government. “It taught me how important the law was in shaping direction and policy—at that point I didn’t know how to protect the environment, but I really got to understand how important laws are in the context of shaping society. So I went to law school.”
Page soon realized he wanted to be an environmental lawyer, but not before practicing civil litigation for five years at a firm that didn’t handle environmental issues. During that time, he regularly canvassed environmental law positions across Canada. By the time Sierra Legal called (now Ecojustice ), Page had the qualifications necessary for a career in environmental law: he was media savvy (he worked for the Canada Games); knew policy development and had litigation experience.
Seven years later…
About 19,000 Canadians regularly contribute to Ecojustice. And it has a fundraising department devoted to three areas: one fundraiser handles direct mail–which is morphing into online giving; another fundraiser is focused on larger donors; and a third seeks funding from large foundations.
Fundraising has to be one of the most exasperating and difficult jobs, but now that everyone is familiar with global warming, would environmental fundraising be less of a challenge? “ It is somewhat easier now,” says Page. “We are one of the healthiest environmental organizations in Canada and people understand that the environment needs a good lawyer. But at the same time, we turn away the majority of requests for our services and in that context, we are chronically under-funded.”
And it’s tough on a personal level. Page says environmental lawyers aren’t making a lot of money, “but we have an undeniable luxury of being able to follow our passions.”