Tribute and Celebration: Creating East Coast Environmental Law

This blog post by Lisa Mitchell, Executive Director & Senior Lawyer at East Coast Environmental Law, is the first in a Tribute and Celebration series that reflects on 15 years of East Coast Environmental Law and pays tribute to our friend and colleague Meinhard Doelle, who was instrumental in establishing the organization and encouraging advocacy for a more just and sustainable world.

November 21, 2022

In the very first East Coast Environmental Law Annual Report, published in 2008, the Chair of the Board at the time, Meinhard Doelle, described the motivation for creating the organization:

The East Coast Environmental Law Association (ECELAW) is the product of years of hard work by students and faculty at Dalhousie, environmental law practitioners and the environmental community in Nova Scotia. It fills a long time gap, as Atlantic Canada was the only region of the country not being served by a not for profit environmental law organization. ECELAW’s areas of focus are developing educational opportunities for law students, serving the environmental community, and promoting effective environmental laws. 2008 represents the first full year of operation of ECELAW.   

The East Coast Environmental Law Association (2007) was registered as a Nova Scotian society on April 15, 2007, just over 15 years ago. It was not the first iteration of East Coast Environmental Law; the first registration of a society calling itself East Coast Environmental Law happened more than 30 years ago, on March 25, 1991. 

I was part of an intrepid group of students who banded together to create the first iteration of East Coast Environmental Law in 1991. Our current Board member Bakes Mitchell was also part of that group. This was during the build-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (“the Earth Summit”), which was to be held in Rio in June 1992. For me personally, this was a period of adventure and learning. As the Atlantic Canadian representative of Youth ’92,1 I was actively engaged with youth and students from around the world who were preparing to participate in the Earth Summit. Unfortunately, despite the youthful energy and best efforts of our local group, the first iteration of East Coast Environmental Law was not able to secure the financial support it needed to carry out its vision.  

More than 15 years later, in 2007, Meinhard stepped up to build on the original vision. Meinhard and I had worked together on a variety of projects over the years, including the creation of the Nova Scotia Environment Act and a series of community-based workshops on climate change. I was more than happy to join him and a new group of students and volunteers to make the dream of East Coast Environmental Law a reality. It was Meinhard’s leadership and the determination of the volunteer Board of Directors that successfully launched the East Coast Environmental Law Association (2007). As the first Board Chair, Meinhard forged the pivotal relationship with the Law Foundation of Nova Scotia that has been the single greatest financial support to the organization over the past 15 years.  

I believe that Meinhard was uniquely gifted in his ability to understand very complex legal issues, and his depth of environmental law knowledge was immense. However, one of the many things that made him truly special was his willingness to share that knowledge. Many of his colleagues and collaborators would admit to having a “list of questions for Meinhard” on their desk. From climate change to aquaculture to environmental impact assessment, Meinhard always made himself available to discuss the complexities of the law and work through practical solutions to challenging problems.

I think his drive to create a public-interest environmental law charity was rooted in his desire to share and collaborate as ways to act on his earnest concerns about the state of this small blue dot we call home. In 1991, 2007, and today, the many supporters of East Coast Environmental Law have a fire burning within. In his quiet, persistent way, Meinhard was able to help us light the flame that made the dream of public-interest environmental law in Atlantic Canada a reality.

The vision of East Coast Environmental Law is one in which Atlantic Canadian lawyers apply their skills to advocate for the environment, support local communities, provide opportunities for law students to immerse themselves in public-interest environmental law, and build laws to carry us into a more sustainable future.

Now celebrating 15 years, East Coast Environmental Law is filling the gap Meinhard described in 2008. An organization with 3 lawyers on staff, a strong and supportive Board, and well over 100 student alumni is truly an accomplishment. It is a tribute not only to Meinhard’s commitment to create something very special, but to all of those who joined him in 2007 and have dedicated countless hours of time and energy in the 15 years that followed.  

In his last message as Board Chair, published in the organization’s Annual Report in 2012, Meinhard had this to say:

After six wonderful years, it is with mixed emotions that I reflect on my time with ECELAW as my term as board member and chair comes to an end. To those of us who have been involved since long before the official start in 2007, ECELAW seems more like a child we have been gradually nurturing to adulthood than an abstract organization. I leave my position as board member with the knowledge that the organization is in excellent hands.  

As a member of the original group of intrepid students in 1991, then a member of Meinhard’s first Board of Directors in 2007, and now as East Coast Environmental Law’s Executive Director, it feels as if I hold a certain kind of thread that weaves throughout the history of East Coast Environmental Law. I feel a profound responsibility and a deep sense of loss when I consider the future of East Coast Environmental Law without Meinhard’s counsel and support. However, Meinhard and I shared a strong conviction of the importance of collaboration, and I have faith that the collaborative spirit that inspired East Coast Environmental Law so many years ago and sustained its vision ever since will continue to keep the organization going as we move forward with one less champion in our midst. When I consider the number of lawyers and law students in our region who share East Coast Environmental Law’s vision for a more just and sustainable world—many of them Meinhard’s former students and colleagues—I am confident that public-interest environmental law in Atlantic Canada is on firm footing. Together, we can honour Meinhard’s legacy by seeking counsel from one another, extending support, and sharing the knowledge and skills we hold, just as Meinhard shared his knowledge and skills with us so generously. Together, we can continue to tend the flame that Meinhard helped us light.   

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Lisa Mitchell, Executive Director and Senior Lawyer

Youth ’92, financially supported by the Canadian government, was an entirely youth-led and youth-run organization that provided leadership to youth around the world as they prepared for the Earth Summit. Youth ’92 held the Youth ’92 National Conference on Environment and Development in Churchpoint, Nova Scotia in August 1991, and, in partnership with Costa Rican youth, the Youth ’92 World Forum in San Jose, Costa Rica in March 1992. The World Youth Statement and Plan of Action on Environment and Development was officially presented by youth at the Earth Summit in June 1992.