Stewart Elgie was working with the American Sierra Club Legal Defence Fund (SCLDF) in Alaska in March 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef and spilled 35,000 metric tonnes of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
The disaster threw the young Canadian lawyer into a series of high-profile legal battles to hold Exxon and the government to account. The oil spill also reinforced something that was already on Stewart’s mind: Rivers, fish, migratory birds, and oil slicks don’t respect national borders. Stewart decided to take what he had learned in the U.S. and head back to Canada.
SCLDF was founded by a group of visionary American lawyers who believed that the law can be harnessed to preserve the environment. No one was sure if the American model developed by SCLDF would work in Canada, but it didn’t take long to identify a group of champions for the idea. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund, now called Ecojustice, set up shop in Vancouver and was incorporated as a charity in 1990 with lawyer Greg McDade in the role of executive director. Stewart Elgie, Don Lidstone, Dr. Michael M’Conigle, John Rich, Don Rosenbloom, Rick Sutherland, Dr. Andrew Thompson, and Joan Vance were the founding board members of Ecojustice.
One of Ecojustice’s first cases would illustrate the crucial role we have come to play. Representing the “Friends of the Oldman River,” a grassroots group in Alberta fighting to protect this historic waterway, Ecojustice lawyers fought a proposed mega-dam. In a case that eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada, we helped force the federal government to live up to its responsibilities to properly assess the harm that large industrial projects cause our environment. And we brought environmental awareness to Canada’s highest court. In a groundbreaking decision that opened with an acknowledgment that “the protection of the environment has become one of the major challenges of our time,” the case established the precedent requiring environmental assessment for most major development projects across Canada.
Ecojustice has gone on to win countless precedent-setting cases on behalf of First Nations, landowners, grassroots community coalitions, municipalities, and environmental organizations of all sizes. In 1996, Ecojustice opened a second office in Toronto, followed by a third in Ottawa, and, most recently, a Calgary office.