Quebec lawyer Michel Bélanger cemented his fame in environmental circles with a 2008 win at the Supreme Court of Canada protecting the rights of citizens to launch class-action lawsuits over environmental harm. It was a celebrated victory, one so important he might have legitimately rested on his laurels for the remainder of his legal career.
But Bélanger continued to push, and his life’s work as an environmental lawyer and advocate recently earned him Nature Canada’s pre-eminent 2020 Douglas H. Pimlott Award.
As climate change reaches a tipping point, Bélanger says there is still much more work to be done, and he believes the journey will be arduous.
“It’s difficult to realize that the battle is not finished. I feel sometimes that it’s worse than when I started,” Bélanger says.
Following in his father’s footsteps, the Montreal-based lawyer began his career in the 1980s as a notary but quickly pivoted to environmental law at a time when it was an uncommon field of study. Bélanger knew he wanted to dedicate his life to defending the environment after he joined a few environmental advocacy groups in university.
“I chose environmental law for the mission I felt I had to take,” Bélanger explains.“I felt I had to do something that’s useful with my life and I never regret it.”
At that time in Quebec, where Bélanger grew up and still resides, there were no specialized environmental law programs, but that didn’t get in his way. He built his own program by selecting courses that related to environmental law within the public law master’s program at the Université de Montréal. He also earned a diploma in specialized studies in environmental law and territorial management from Université Robert Schuman in France.
Quebec environmental lawyer Michel Bélanger has spent his career fighting for the environment. Photo submitted by Michel Bélanger
In 1989, he co-founded the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, and since then, Bélanger has undergone a relentless journey fighting to protect nature. He teaches environmental law at École Polytechnique de Montréal, Sherbrooke University, Laval University and UQAM. He is president of Nature Québec and founded the law firm Lauzon Bélanger with his associate Yves Lauzon.
Bob Peart, recently retired chair of the Nature Canada board, says Bélanger was selected for the award because his devotion to protect the environment has been backed with a legal approach.
“A lot of people stand up for nature but you also have to stand up for nature in the courts,” Peart says.
The pandemic “shows us that we are able to turn ourselves seriously on an urgent matter,” says Michel Bélanger, this year’s @naturecanada 2020 Douglas H. Pimlott Award winner. “Humanity could work together against an enemy.”
Bélanger has been involved in numerous high-profile actions, but his 2008 Supreme Court win was particularly important. It created a “no-fault regime” in Quebec, making environmental nuisance claims easier to prove, thereby increasing incentives for polluters to comply with environmental regulations to avoid being sued by their neighbours.
Peart says Bélanger provided citizens with the gift of confidence that they will be taken seriously in court.
“The award is given to individuals who demonstrated significant contributions throughout their lifetime to protect Canada’s nature. It was certainly clear that Michel was deserving of the Pimlott,” Peart says.
Previous award recipients include George Archibald, David Schindler, Monte Hummel, Greg Mitchell, Harvey Mead and Diane Griffin.
Michel Bélanger hiking at Mont Blanc. Photo submitted by Michel Bélanger
Bélanger says being recognized for his accomplishments brings him joy. However, he paints a grim picture of the future.
With climate change worsening and more animals and plants facing the risk of extinction, Bélanger is afraid action will happen too late.
He says the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic proves humanity is able to act quickly in a crisis. The pandemic “shows us that we are able to turn ourselves seriously on an urgent matter,” Bélanger says. “Humanity could work together against an enemy.”
But he identifies one stark difference between the two emergencies: death.
“Nobody is clearly dying now because of the climate change crisis,” he says. And because solutions to climate change are costly and don’t produce instant results, people tend to lose hope in the cause.
“You’ll have to make sacrifices but you won’t feel the solution,” Bélanger says.
Despite his fears, Bélanger still sees a sprout of hope, particularly among younger generations, who are increasingly becoming more involved in environmental law and advocacy.
“There are young people that want to do something. It might be the urgency of the situation that brings them there,” Bélanger says. “That’s an urgency I didn’t have when I decided to start that specialization of law.”