In its first major case, lawyers from Ecojustice (then Sierra Legal Defence Fund) launched a lawsuit on behalf of the Friends of the Oldman River, a grassroots group of Alberta citizens, seeking a federal government assessment on the potentially severe environmental impacts that would result from the construction of a mega-dam on the Oldman River.
The Piikani Nation, located downstream from the proposed dam, had also mounted a lobbying campaign to stop construction. After the lawsuit was launched, the Province of Alberta, which was responsible for the proposed dam project, joined the federal government in opposing our legal action.
The case eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). We intervened on our own behalf and on behalf of a coalition of environmental organizations. In January 1992, the SCC handed down a decision that opened with an acknowledgment that “the protection of the environment has become one of the major challenges of our time.” The SCC found that federal environmental assessment guidelines were mandatory, binding on the federal government, and extended to projects sponsored by provincial governments.
In intervening in this case, our goal was twofold: to raise environmental awareness in Canada’s courts by showing that a careful weighing of environmental consequences should precede development decisions and to establish a precedent requiring federal environmental assessments of major projects in Canada. We were successful on both fronts.
The SCC’s decision in the Oldman River case has guided courts and tribunals for more than 20 years. Although the decision came too late to stop the dam in question, it compelled Alberta to deploy measures to address the worst downstream impacts of the project, which most profoundly affected the Piikani Nation.
Photo by Litwin Photography via Shutterstock.