ELC Co-op Student Emilie Benoit

I couldn’t ask for a better co-op experience than being immersed in the world of public interest environmental law at the ELC. It’s been great to work on a variety of projects, to meet others doing inspiring environmental work, and to see the positive impact of the ELC’s work in action

Environmental wins don’t always happen quickly, but thanks to ELC co-op student Emilie Benoit, there is one more recent example to celebrate.

Having just taken the ELC Clinic in the fall, Emilie Benoit had some idea of the type of work she might encounter when she started with the ELC as a co-op student in January. What she didn’t know was that less than a month into her term, she’d help a concerned citizens group get documents they needed about a proposed development that threatened local estuary lands.

The French Creek Estuary is a sensitive area with mature second growth Coastal Douglas fir forest, marshes, wetlands, ponds, habitat for numerous wildlife and plants, and a river with a significant salmon run.

When the Save French Creek Estuary Lands group asked the Regional District of Nanaimo for a copy of the environmental assessment outlining the potential impacts of a proposed development on the estuary and were refused, they came to the ELC for help.

With guidance from ELC Legal Director Calvin Sandborn, Emilie reviewed regional and provincial law, and previous ELC submissions to BC’s Information and Privacy Commission about the release of public documents.

Emilie quickly discovered that the law on freedom of information was clear, in large part thanks to the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s decisions pursuant to ELC submissions regarding the release of information in the Mount Polley and the Hullcar Valley Aquifer cases.

Public bodies must release information where its disclosure is clearly in the public interest. The ELC has long pushed for this requirement to be put into practice. In December, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner released a guidance document to explain this obligation.

On behalf of the Save French Creek Estuary Land group, Emilie drafted a letter to the Regional District of Nanaimo, requesting the immediate release of the assessment based on section 25 of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

 “After learning more about Freedom of Information law in BC,” says Emily, “I was surprised to learn that members of the public often have to jump through so many hoops to access documents held by public bodies. It should be simple for concerned citizens to access public documents like environmental reports in order to develop informed opinions about issues that may have a direct impact on their community.“

After receiving the letter (and some spotlight from a local news source), the District released the environmental assessment to the group. The information will help them contribute to the community conversation as the District considers its final decision about the development.

Spokesperson for Save French Creek Estuary Lands group Denise Foster says, “The release of documents is a precedent setting victory, paving the way for others wishing to access documents, and viewed as a ‘win for the little guy.’ Having the opportunity for experts to review the Bio-Physical assessment is proving invaluable to the success of the campaign and the protection of this ecologically important area.” 

Media: Jack Knox: Parskville environmental group wins fight to get information

More on this topic: At the ELC’s request, the Information and Privacy Commissioner launched an investigation in August 2017 to look at whether public bodies are doing their duty in making records available without the need for an access to information request. The investigation is currently underway.

The co-op position is a new opportunity at the ELC thanks to the Law Foundation of BC.