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Federal Politics

Meet the Teens Suing Canada to Stop a Pipeline

‘It seemed like the government didn’t care about our future.’

Meghan Mast 31 Oct 2019 |

Meghan Mast is a Winnipeg-based multimedia journalist who has covered agriculture, politics, hydro, health and the climate crisis. Her work has appeared on the CBC and in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Globe and Mail and Megaphone magazine.

Rebecca Wolf Gage, 13, isn’t one to sit back and watch things happen. When she was 12, she started the first climate strike in Victoria, with her 10-year-old brother, and a few months ago she helped launch a lawsuit against the Canadian government.

She is one of four Canadian teenagers, aged 13 to 18, taking the federal government to court on the grounds that buying the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project violates their charter rights and the rights of other young Canadians by continuing to contribute to the climate crisis.

“[When they bought TMX] it seemed like the government didn’t care about our future,” said Wolf Gage, “because they didn’t want to open their eyes to what the pipeline’s going to do to future generations and even generations now.”

The public interest case points to the greenhouse gas emissions the TMX expansion project would be responsible for — about 10 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions — larger than that of several countries. Since the project is so carbon intensive, by buying TMX, the appeal argues, the government will be responsible for its GHG emissions and the subsequent effects on young people.

The appeal by Youth Stop TMX was one of 12 launched in July by opponents of the project, including several First Nations and environmental organizations. The application was one of six then dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal in September, but Gage and her group are hoping to appeal to the Supreme Court if they can raise the necessary funds by Nov. 4.

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Plaintiff Lena Andres, 17, of Youth Stop TMX, says anxiety about the climate crisis consumes her thoughts.
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Plaintiff Olivier Adkin-Kaya, 18, wears a mask to filter air polluted by wildfires near his Edmonton home. Photo by Steven MacAulay.

Lawyers Patrick Canning, Erin Gray and David Estrin have been counselling the plaintiffs at a discounted rate. The first appeal was funded in part by West Coast Environmental Law, but this next application is now heavily reliant on fundraising. The youth started a GoFundMe page, where they have raised nearly $5,000 towards their goal of $15,000.

“It’s really grassroots,” said Erin Gray. “It’s being led by four teenagers that are very busy with climate organizing and school.”

This case is important to the four youth, who say they are harmed psychologically and, in some cases, physically by human-caused climate change. Nina Tran, 18, has suffered from heat exhaustion during heat waves in Ontario and witnessed friends displaced when their homes were flooded due to extreme rain. Wolf Gage and Olivier Adkin-Kaya, 18, who lives in Edmonton, both breathed air polluted by wildfires near their homes. Wolf Gage’s summer camp was cancelled due to the smoke.

The psychological impacts are notable also. Wolf Gage struggles with depression due to the climate crisis and Lena Andres, the fourth in the group of plaintiffs, said anxiety about the climate crisis consumes her thoughts. She is always thinking about how to minimize her impact on the environment, but she knows addressing the climate crisis is about more than individuals.

“We need a complete system change,” said Andres. “These institutions keep degrading the land and they are degrading people in the process.”

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Plaintiff Nina Tran, 18, speaks to media in front of Hamilton, Ont. city hall. She suffered from heat exhaustion during high temperatures in the province.

The appeal points out the government is well aware of the climate science. Its lawyers recently acknowledged in the Ontario Court of Appeal that “GHG emissions must fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ around 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 C and avoid the significantly more deleterious impacts of exceeding this temperature threshold.”

This discrepancy between what the federal government says and what it does made its decision to buy the expansion project particularly painful for Andres, who is 17.

Andres was on the bus on her way to a youth climate striker’s meeting in Winnipeg when she saw the news on her phone. She says she couldn’t reconcile the previous day where the government had declared a climate emergency with this announcement.

“The meeting that day was quiet, very quiet, which was very unusual for our group,” said Andres. “I felt violated. I felt disturbed. I had no hope in our leader that day.”

Neither Wolf Gage or Andres know if they will be able to raise the necessary money in time to make the appeal on Nov. 4, or if their case will be successful. But what matters to them is they are making the effort.

“I think people are really discounting youth,” said Andres. “We’re not kidding about this. We’re not joking around. This is a matter of life and death for a lot of people already and we want to make sure that the least amount of people are harmed by this.”  [Tyee]

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