A New Phase

Photo Credit: Julissa Helmuth Photo Credit: Julissa Helmuth

June 2, 2020

When I started law school four years ago, I knew that I wanted to study environmental law and human rights. I also knew that I wanted to develop skills, strength, and power that would help me to fight for and with vulnerable communities that needed capable allies in the face of environmental and climate injustice.

In my life before law school, I was teaching literature studies to undergraduates and researching contemporary Canadian literature on environmental themes, with a main focus on novels that addressed environmental activism, environmental racism, and the climate crisis. I believed then—as I still believe now—that spaces of teaching and learning have an important role to play in creating the cultural shifts that need to happen if we’re going to prevent or mitigate the worst consequences of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.  

When I made the decision to shift course and go to law school instead of continuing to pursue a career as an English professor, I knew that studying law would give me a new way to analyze and grapple with the issues I cared about most. I also thought that many of my English skills would transfer well into law. As I imagined it, a life in law involved a lot of reading, research, and public speaking, and so I figured, how different can it be? Although my first year of law school brought more than a few surprises and required me to learn an entirely new way of thinking (and although I never did master the unique challenge of the law school exam), on the whole, I found that my instincts were right: studying and teaching literature and studying, teaching, and commenting on law have a lot in common.

As I progressed through law school, it often seemed to me that law itself was a kind of storytelling—sometimes containing some very disturbing narrative threads—and that changing the law for the better meant telling truer, braver, more inclusive, more just, and more visionary stories about who we are as societies and who we want to be. 

I was already living in Halifax and I knew a little bit (but not a lot) about East Coast Environmental Law before I started law school. The organization’s presence here was one of the reasons why I chose to study at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law instead of moving elsewhere. As I got to know the organization better by volunteering and working with its staff and Board members while pursuing my legal studies, I felt more and more strongly that it was where I ultimately wanted to be. 

East Coast Environmental Law has a public-interest mandate and is committed to serving communities that might otherwise have poor access or no access to justice. As it carries out its work, it emphasizes the importance of public legal education and prioritizes the development of accessible legal information resources. Staff regularly engage in teaching activities that help to build communities’ capacities to engage with environmental law processes, and we also support other environmental advocacy organizations by providing legal analyses to supplement and bolster their own expertise. While we do sometimes take legal action by going to court, it’s more often the case that we’re working cooperatively, side by side, with the communities and organizations that ask for our help, collaborating to enhance our collective abilities to foster environmental and climate justice in our region. 

For me, stepping into a new staff lawyer position at East Coast Environmental law is an enormous privilege, and not just because I get to do exactly the kind of work I dreamed of doing when I decided to go to law school. As I move forward in this new role, I commit to doing my best to offer support where it is needed and to working cooperatively, with respect and humility, with the many others labouring in our communities—often unpaid and unacknowledged for their experience and expertise—as we strive together to cultivate a more just and equitable world.  

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Tina Northrup