Creating Space for Environmental Justice: The importance of Youth Participation

By Pearl Lee

Today, about 1.8 billion young people (aged 10 to 24) make up one quarter of the world’s population. These are the people who will be the decision makers of the future, shaping the way that our social, political, and economic structures tackle environmental issues.

Yet too many of these youth still grapple with environmental injustices in their communities that keep them from reaching their personal and collective potential.

To address this issue, environmental law professor Andrew Green suggests that “progress on environmental issues will require a shift in how individuals view and value their relationship to the environment”. What kind of relationship do we want to foster between youth and the environments they live in? In my mind, it is one that goes beyond mere awareness of environmental injustice to one that espouses leadership, responsibility and action. The classroom remains a very important setting to do just that.

Active Citizens in the Classroom

As a participant in the Osgoode EJS Clinic, I am honored to partner with Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) to develop and present a public legal education (PLE) workshop for grade 10 students at a local high school in Toronto. The purpose of this workshop is to address inequality and environmental injustices related to air pollution and human health. My hope is to provide students with legal tools that will help them to be proactive about the systemic barriers and prejudice they may face in their community.

Air quality depends mostly on what sources exist in different neighbourhoods and how weather patterns carry pollutants in the air.  In an urban environment like Toronto, the public’s health may be affected by a number of environmental factors, including chemicals that pollute the air, water and land. Exposure to these chemicals come from different sources: some come from sources outside the city and others from inside the city itself. Recent studies have shown that air pollution levels and income levels are linked. Poorer communities tend to experience higher levels of polluted air than wealthier communities and as a result, are exposed to greater health issues.

As Toronto has grown and its boundaries have expanded, low-income households have concentrated in neighbourhoods that have the highest release of toxic pollutants. The Jane-Finch Community is a prime example. In one study, low-income neighbourhoods in the Jane-Finch area, such as Humbermede and Humbersummit, were found to have the highest level of poverty rates as well as the highest air releases of toxic air pollutants. Juxtaposed to this was the low level of poverty and low level of toxic air releases found in more affluent neighbourhoods like Forest Hill and the Annex. Not only are pollution sources generally concentrated in areas of low income households, similar patterns were also found in areas with higher populations of visible minorities.

If this isn’t environmental injustice/racism, I don’t know what is!

Embedded in the global pursuit for access to justice is the hope that everyone, no matter their age, race or gender, should have a right to live in a healthy environment. The danger of not advancing this message is the risk of future generations becoming complacent with the environmental injustices around them.

The Toolbox: Applications for Investigation

As a part of the PLE workshop, students will explore s. 74(1) of the Environmental Bill of Rights and the power it gives Ontarians to ask the government to investigate alleged violations of environmental laws. They will have a chance to work in groups and read case studies in which Ontario citizens have used s.74(1) to stop environmental harms such as an asphalt plant operating without an air emissions approval and the discharge of untreated sewage in provincial parks. In addition, students will be guided through a practical lesson on how to go about requesting an application for investigation and the requirements of the process.

Providing young people avenues to participate meaningfully in decision-making issues that affect them can help fulfill their rights to inclusion in society.

Pearl Lee (JD '17) is completing a virtual placement with the Canadian Environmental Law Association

Pearl Lee (JD '17) is completing a virtual placement with the Canadian Environmental Law Association

This right and responsibility of youth to participate in sustainable development has been recognized by the United Nations and has become a resounding position of youth from across the world. One of the major themes during The Conference of Youth 2015 held in Paris was that any decisions affecting the current reality and future of youth must be made in consultation with them. Since today’s youth will be inheriting the Earth from older generations, it is important that they are motivated to make decisions that are better for the future. As such, educating youth about environmental justice issues in their community is a crucial part in this process. As Jerusha Conner and Sonia Rosen eloquently state, “by intentionally creating spaces in schools for students to become activists, we are giving young people the chance to actively participate in democracy”. My hope through this PLE workshop is to play a part in the global movement of environmental justice and equality.