Nov. 27, 2023
Policy labs give students experience in what it takes to effect legal, policy change
Environmental impact assessment (EIA) has become a cornerstone of environmental law worldwide. In Canada, this area of law has become controversial and politically charged, with the federal statute undergoing a significant overhaul in 2019, leading to a constitutional challenge at the Supreme Court of Canada in early 2023.
For Canadian law students, it’s the perfect time to study environmental impact assessment law, and “policy labs” allow UCalgary students to practise what it takes to change law and policy in different jurisdictions across the country.
“This course at this time is basically a dream come true,” says Professor David Wright. “There is so much change in this area of law and policy at the moment, that it made total sense for the students to engage in real-world processes in real time. These students are going to know more about this field than most senior practitioners, and they’ll have the policy lab experiences to back it up.”
1st lab focuses on recommendations for Nova Scotia
Students in Law 623: Environmental Impact Assessment Law participated in two policy labs this term, one focused on a provincial assessment regime, and the other focused on federal. In the first lab, students rolled up their sleeves and generated recommendations to Nova Scotia’s Environmental Assessment Modernization initiative. The public consultation period was open during the fall term, meaning student recommendations have the potential to influence reform of that EIA process.
“The Nova Scotia policy lab forced all of us to mobilize our thinking and understanding of the course material in a way that could directly impact government action,” explains third-year student AJ Macaulay. “
Knowing our submissions would be received by the Nova Scotia government and that our groups had the potential to influence regulatory decision-making led to very collaborative and meaningful discussions while testing our understanding of the course material in a way that can’t be accomplished solely through the traditional lecture and exam process.”
According to second-year student Nicole Achtymichuk, the class provided recommendations on aspects that the Nova Scotia government should consider when modernizing its impact assessment process, including requiring meaningful public participation and improving associated processes, and explicitly requiring consideration of climate change and the impacts of a project’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The group’s recommendations were compiled into a post for ABlawg, the Faculty of Law’s blog.
2nd lab explores recent Supreme Court decision
The second policy lab used the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision on the constitutionality of the federal Impact Assessment Act to make draft recommendations to align the contentious sections of the Act with the court’s guidance.
For Achtymichuk, the policy labs have been an excellent opportunity to put high-level ideas and theories about what impact assessment should be into action.
“It’s one thing to read and interpret a Supreme Court decision, but it’s another to put the court’s guidance into action to draft legislative changes,” she says.
“The last lab has helped us make sense of the Supreme Court opinion, and we’ve developed predictions on what impact assessment law may look like in the future. Many of us in the class want to work in the environmental and energy law fields, so having the opportunity to work with the court's decision will be invaluable once we enter practice.”
Macaulay agrees, adding that the policy labs force students to step outside their comfort zone.
“These exercises test our understanding of the material with a degree of realism and importance that merges our understanding of the course material in a setting that also requires collaboration, co-operation, and teamwork.”