The Golden Era of Environmental Law

From the Fall 2007 issue of Nexus.


 David Boyd ('89)
 David Boyd '89

Sometimes chance encounters can change the course of an entire lifetime. For David Boyd '89, it was listening to a CBC radio program that pointed him toward a career dedicated to the environment, something that he really hadn't considered until then.


"I graduated from law school in 1989, and then did the typical world traveling thing after graduation," he says. "I went all over Europe, South and Central America and then eventually came back to Canada. I was listening to the radio one day, and a program came on called 'It's a Matter of Survival' with host David Suzuki."

The program described the Sierra Legal Defense Fund (SLDF) - a small but very vocal non-profit environmental protection agency, and its efforts to block the expansion of a resort in the Banff National Park area.  "That was it for me - at that moment, I knew that this would be the way to combine my legal education and my love of the environment by becoming a practicing public interest environmental lawyer," he says.

Boyd made contact with the organization, hopped on a bus to Vancouver and joined the barebones staff of three other lawyers as they worked on environmental cases. In addition to the meaningful content of his work, he was thrilled to be living out west. Having grown up with the Rocky Mountains in his backyard, he was happy to be in Vancouver where he could continue life long outdoor interests like hiking and skiing.

While serving as the Executive Director of the SLDF, Boyd oversaw a number of high profile cases of environmental concern to Canadians. They recently intervened in a case where Hydro Quebec was charged with dumping PCBs. The province challenged the constitutionality of the law on toxic dumping. The SLDF intervened on behalf of a coalition of environmental organizations. Fortunately, the courts upheld the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, confirming that environmental protection remains solidly recognized as a national issue - not subject to provincial amendment attempts.

The last decade, says Boyd, has been kind of a "golden era" for environmental litigation in Canada. However, he says, it became clear to him through his practice that Canada actually had relatively weak environmental laws. So, he started doing research, and publishing articles on the weakness of the law. Simultaneously, he also began teaching as an adjunct professor at UBC.

"This new work led me to publish a book called Unnatural Law: Rethinking Environmental Law & Policy in Canada. Things came full circle when I asked Dr. David Suzuki to write the 'blurb' on the back of the book. He was so impressed with the book that his foundation actually sponsored my book tour - a cross country tour of 20 Canadian cities in 2003," he adds.

That was the start of Boyd's collaboration with the Suzuki Foundation, and it was the Foundation that published his report Sustainability Within A Generation: A New Vision For Canada. A copy of this report was presented to then Prime Minister Martin by David Suzuki. Martin was so impressed with the paper that he immediately phoned Boyd and asked him to come to Ottawa for a year as a special advisor on sustainability issues to the Privy Council.

Working in environmental issues is a family affair. Boyd's wife Margot Venton is also an environmental lawyer. And Boyd says that having a new daughter - Meredith - now 1 1/2 - has also made him even more committed than ever to greening Canada.

"What she is exposed to is really important to me. In the end, we are all in this environmental thing together," he says.

Boyd is currently enrolled in a PhD program at UBC and is the recipient of a Trudeau Scholarship. His dissertation topic is The Right to Live in a Healthy Environment, and he is also co-authoring a book with David Suzuki which will be a guide for everyday people to reduce their ecological footprint.

He feels incredibly fortunate that someone he considered to be an iconic figure in his life has actually turned out to be a friend and colleague. He says he would love to see Canada take the opportunity of become the greatest and cleanest country on the planet and provide a genuine model for a sustainable future.

"We live in a vast and beautiful country despite the harm that has been done to it. We have an extraordinary natural beauty to pay tribute to for generations to come, and I'm so glad to be a part of that," he says.