It’s not every law student that has the opportunity to work on a potentially precedent-setting case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. But that’s what a group of law students at the University of Ottawa did last year, in a case involving clean-up costs of several contaminated sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. The students were participants in the EcoJustice Environmental Law Clinic, a partnership between the university and EcoJustice, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
Since the clinic was founded in 2007, it has trained about 25 students a year in environmental litigation. The participants work alongside law professors and environmental lawyers representing community and advocacy groups, First Nations communities and individuals who likely wouldn’t be able to afford legal help. The work is provided free of charge.
On May 11, the clinic was recognized for its contributions as one of the recipients of the inaugural Community Service-Learning Awards provided by the Montreal-based J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. The prizes were awarded at the annual gathering of the Canadian Alliance for Community-Service Learning held at the University of Saskatchewan.
“Getting a stamp of approval from McConnell means a lot,” said Will Amos, director of the EcoJustice clinic and a part-time law professor at U of Ottawa. The award is a “validation” of the clinic’s work, he said, and a recognition of the growing acceptance for community service-learning at universities. “It’s an important new force for learning,” he said.
Since 2004, the McConnell Foundation has provided $9.4 million to 10 universities to help them develop and expand community-service learning, or CSL, initiatives. Many other institutions have launched CSL programs with the support of other donors. CSL combines volunteer service with academic learning.
The purpose of the McConnell funding was to help a select group of CSL programs get established and grow; it wasn’t intended to provide ongoing operational support. This is the last year the foundation will provide direct support for such initiatives. To mark the transition, the foundation introduced an annual CSL awards program. The purpose of the awards is to “celebrate the most innovative CSL initiatives while encouraging postsecondary institutions and communities to continue the promising work that has begun,” it said. Each year up to four awards valued at $7,500 each will go to projects that are jointly supported by community organizations and postsecondary institutions.
This year five projects were selected, two of them based at Université du Québec à Trois Rivières, which will share an award. The other recipients are U of Ottawa, Lakehead University and the University of British Columbia.
UQTR was chosen for its l’Université de la Rue and l’Écol’Hotel K programs. The first project brings together students, professors and community groups who work to foster better relations and understanding between street kids and other marginalized citizens, and the community in which they live. Lyne Douville, program director and professor at UQTR, called the project one that is “close to my heart” and said she hopes the award will spur other universities to take on similar initiatives.
UQTR’s l’Écol’Hotel K is Canada’s first eco-hotel and school. The ecologically built and managed hotel also functions as a training ground for students in various disciplines such as accounting.
UBC’s College of Health Disciplines places health professional students within aboriginal communities to allow them to gain first-hand knowledge of aboriginal culture, traditions and lifestyle. The students learn alongside aboriginal youth at summer camps run by First Nations elders and cultural leaders. The students, in turn, run talks on nutrition, sexual health and other health-related topics.
Lakehead University’s Food Security Research Network works to enhance and expand local food production, marketing and distribution systems in northern Ontario, particularly in remote areas faced with high food costs.
The McConnell Foundation said it plans to support the CSL awards for the next few years while it tries to find other donors to take up the cause.