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Tribute and Celebration: Pursuing Meinhard's Clear-sighted Vision

This blog post by David V. Wright, Assistant Professor in the University of Calgary Faculty of Law, is the second 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 28, 2022

Environmental law, perhaps more than most other areas of law, is in a constant state of tension between what the law is and what the law ought to be. Meinhard, as someone who excelled in private practice, not-for-profit, government, and academic roles, had supreme command of both realms. His understanding of substantive Canadian and international environmental law, particularly impact assessment and climate change law, was encyclopedic – awesome in the truest sense of the word. The depth and sophistication of Meinhard’s knowledge were virtually boundless, as evidenced by his countless publications in journals and books and the many citations to his work by courts across Canada.

But understanding the present state of the law was far from satisfactory for Meinhard; he was keenly driven to change the law. He recognized, and helped the rest of us appreciate, the important roles law can play in pursuit of sustainability. And he had a crystal clear, highly ambitious vision of how to do it. In the context of Atlantic Canada, East Coast Environmental Law was a core part of that vision. The organization was envisioned to be precisely what it has become today: a vibrant not-for-profit environmental law organization that advocates for progressive environmental law and policy while educating and building capacity along the way. In short, an essential bridge from what the law is to what the law ought to be, all en route to a more sustainable, equitable future for Atlantic Canada.

Since Meinhard’s passing, I have played many of our cherished conversations over and over again in my head. They bring tears and smiles and deep contemplation and everything in between (including perhaps some revived panic from when he was my thesis supervisor!). One short moment that stands out though – and certainly one that I will never forget – was in a hallway on the fourth floor of the Weldon Law Building during my final year of law school when he asked if I would be interested in being one of the founding Board members for East Coast Environmental Law. It was a very easy and emphatic ‘yes!’ on my part. To be asked by Meinhard was a big deal, but to be part of the all-star crew that he was assembling was riveting. And so began an intense and exciting flurry of activity that would formally establish East Coast Environmental Law and set it up for success.

Looking back at old emails and documents from those early days, I have been struck by a few things. One is just how much we accomplished in a short time pursuant to Meinhard’s vision and savvy navigation. It was pedal to the metal in 2007 and 2008 as we fundraised (basically cap in hand in various office towers and meeting rooms around Halifax), generated all the governance documents, incorporated the organization, developed a strategic plan, clarified relationships with the law school and Ecojustice, developed a website and logo, applied for charitable status, recruited the first Executive Director, and populated the Board with incredible people from the environmental law and policy community. A huge milestone came in February 2008 when we received confirmation from the Nova Scotia Law Foundation that core funding had been approved. It was all real: East Coast Environmental Law (or “ECELA”, as we thought it might be called at the time) was going to happen. High fives ensued, and probably some hugs.

But what was amazing through all this, and so emblematic of Meinhard’s Jedi-esque approach, was that he gave everyone so much space to contribute and charge ahead in our own ways. He was always there, providing direction and input, but he was never overbearing or dictatorial despite this being a key part of his vision. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone so effective at such an approach. And I was fortunate enough to see Meinhard do this in multiple realms over the years as he unlocked the potential of people, institutions, and legal systems in service of moving the “is” of environmental law closer to the “ought”.

Now, in hindsight, it is inspiring to reflect on how principled, bold, and visionary Meinhard was in his approach to all that he touched. He had a rare courage to set things in motion without fear of the challenges or workload ahead. What’s more, Meinhard was always extremely clear-sighted, entirely aware of the complexity, tragedy – but also hope – woven into all he saw. And, through his tireless dedication to and emphasis on good process, he was unwaveringly open and transparent along the way. I will forever be grateful to have been part of Meinhard’s vision. And for many decades East Coast Environmental Law will stand as a beautiful example of his noble approach, no doubt furthering Meinhard’s legacy for generations to come. Meanwhile, many of us are determined to push forward and further Meinhard’s work, more clear-sighted and determined than ever. But only after the tears of grief subside.

DVW One Card March 2021

David V. Wright