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2021 law students zoom through a unique summer at West Coast

Summer students in front of trees from bottom left clockwise: Jack Jones, Russell Chiong, Jenna Jeffrey & Rebekah Smith
August 16, 2021

With every summer at West Coast Environmental Law, our team gets the opportunity to work with a new slate of eager law students from BC and beyond. This year – amidst an ongoing pandemic and intensifying climate impacts – the students have had a unique experience as they dipped their toes into the world of environmental and Indigenous law.

Over the course of the summer, our four intrepid summer law students have contributed to our programs in various ways – from legal research, to drafting blog posts and assisting our team in providing legal advice. Read what they had to say about their experiences at West Coast:

Russell Chiong

I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to spend this summer (albeit virtually) at West Coast Environmental Law. While I’ve only had the chance to meet most of the team over Zoom, I’ve learned so much about their experiences and knowledge of how the law can be used to advance environmental justice.

Over the summer, I had the chance to contribute to work on a variety of topics, including municipal laws addressing flooding in the Lower Mainland, the human health impacts of the heat wave at the beginning of July, and the worrying extent of fossil fuel lobbying in our government.

The project that stands out the most for me, however, was part of the RELAW program. I feel so privileged to have been able to learn about revitalizing the Indigenous laws of the lower Stó:lō/ sq̓ʷa∙nƛ̓íləł stál̕əw̓ (Fraser River); this project has pushed me to reflect further on my positionality as a settler of colour and to interrogate how I can live in a good way in relation to the unceded territories that I occupy.

In addition to the projects that I was able to work on directly, Zoom chats and peer reviews gave me a chance to learn from the amazing work carried out by the other summer students this year.

This summer seems to have passed by in a blur, due in no small part to my enjoyment of the work that I was able to do here at West Coast. I truly appreciate this experience which has helped reinforce my interest in working in public interest environmental law, while letting me play a small role in the amazing work that West Coast does in advancing environmental justice. While it is unfortunate this summer term has ended so soon, I’m looking forward in anticipation of being able to apply what I’ve learned this summer as I enter another year of law school.

Jenna Jeffrey

Spending a summer as part of the West Coast team has been a law school dream come true. As I get ready to start my third and final year of law school while wrapping up the last of my projects and assignments here, I am reminded to take a look around this theoretical mountain peak for a bit before starting on the next adventure.

At the start of the summer, I was unsure what working with lawyers would be like, but I found it refreshing and engaging. From the beginning, we were introduced to the different programs through introductory Zoom meetings and were able to pick the projects we were most interested in to start with. For me, the biodiversity legislation research Gavin Smith and Anna Johnston were working on was my starting point. I looked at different jurisdictions around the world to see if anyone was doing biodiversity legislation well and what those pieces of legislation contained.

The biodiversity laws project made up the majority of my summer and included attending planning meetings where I was able to learn more about the legislative process and how to engage with government officials. Some drafting for Andrew Gage also expanded my understanding of working with government officials but on climate action and accountability.

The collaborative environment here at WCEL enabled me to contribute to a blog post on exclusion zones and another blog post on the need for increased transparency in oil and gas industry lobbying. Breaking down legal or hard-to-find information for the public is definitely one of my passions and I really enjoyed both of these blog posts! Wanting to get as much exposure to the different programs here as possible, I was also able to work on assignments related to Indigenous law, marine law, public legal advice, and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Now that I am physically in Vancouver and meeting some of the faces behind the Zoom squares, I am taking some time to reflect on the overall work environment of West Coast. It is, of course, really great to go for a hike with the summer and articling students but it feels like we are just picking up right where we left off. Over the course of the summer, we participated in scheduled 10- to 15-minute sessions to discuss an insightful or silly prompt, as well as weekly summer student catch-up calls to share what everyone was working on.

This summer could have felt incredibly isolating working from my home office provinces away but the WCEL team is made up of genuine, caring folks who are willing to share their passion for and expertise in environmental law with students who are just starting to shape the beginning of their new careers. Looking at the path I took to get here and the work I have been able to contribute to this summer, I feel incredibly grateful for this experience and look forward to what comes next.

Jack Jones

It is hard to believe how fast this summer term has elapsed. I feel truly grateful and honoured for the learning I have engaged in over the past four months, which has spanned across many sectors of environmental law and challenged me to approach complex legal problems proactively and collaboratively.

During my term I worked with Deborah Carlson and Stephanie Hewson on preparing resources for an ecosystem conservation project with multiple community stakeholders, I worked with Eugene Kung and several partner organizations on an upcoming report about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, I worked with my fellow student Jenna and multiple lawyers on a blog post about RCMP use of exclusion zones at protest sites, I worked with Anna and my fellow students Jenna and Rebekah to do summary advice legal research, and I worked with Gavin to publish a blog and case comment about the implications of the BC Supreme Court decision in Yahey v British Columbia and the management of cumulative effects.

Each of these projects presented unique challenges and engaging learning opportunities. Throughout my time with WCEL I was given autonomy and responsibility to start to answer difficult questions, while feeling supported and empowered to ask the same.

One of the most rewarding parts of my summer was crafting blog posts and reports to both articulate the complexities of a legal issue and simplify the law for a public audience. This work gave me a greater appreciation for work within public interest environmental law that goes into changing the public narrative around environmental issues whilst simultaneously shifting the legal landscape. These tasks combine to make a sustainable future more possible, and in the wake of my time with WCEL I feel more empowered than ever to contribute to such a future.

The ultimate highlight of the summer, of course, was the chance to work with the people at WCEL. Our work was almost entirely remote due to the pandemic, but the team still found ways to convey their compassionate approach to this work through regular check-ins and demonstrated by example that a career in law can be balanced and meaningful. A summer term is far too short a time to work amongst such excellent and admirable people.

Rebekah Smith

I’ve wanted to practice law since I was in high school. Yet, despite telling countless people about my career aspirations, I had no clue what it meant to be a lawyer. It wasn’t until this summer that I was able to get a taste of what practicing law involves. West Coast has been a great introduction to the legal field and I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to contribute to the important work being done here.

This summer I’ve been able to work on a range of projects, on topics as varied as local government participation in climate action to deep seabed mining regulation across the globe. I got the chance to write legal memos and assist with drafting municipal government submissions and federal environmental assessment designation requests. I’ve spent a lot of time scouring local government websites and becoming familiar with mapping systems. Through this work I’ve also been learning about environmental science. This learning has only strengthened my resolve to use my training to advocate for the protection of the environment.

My bachelor’s degree is in history and philosophy. The last science class I took was grade 11 chemistry and though I am passionate about the need to care for the Earth, I never sought out any teachings on how to go about that before this summer. Suffice it to say, my understanding of the natural world is severely lacking – though a little less so after these months with West Coast.

I am thankful for the legal training I’ve received while working here and I am equally grateful for all the other learning that has taken place as well. I see now that practicing environmental law involves – of course – a sound understanding of law, but also a sense of curiosity and lots of humility. Thank you to my fellow summer students and to all the staff at WCEL for modeling these traits so well.

Top photo: Summer students in front of trees from bottom left clockwise: Jack Jones, Russell Chiong, Jenna Jeffrey & Rebekah Smith

West Coast Environmental Law