When talking about the state of the planet, Priyanka Vittal does not mince words. “We are living at a critical juncture in human history,” says the 33-year-old legal counsel at Greenpeace Canada. “There is no more normal. We must do as much as we can to fight for our climate and communities. We need to find a path to a better future.” In her current job, she is working tirelessly to do just that.
Back in law school, at the University of Ottawa, Vittal had a deep passion for social justice and the environment. She also understood that landing a job at the intersection of those dual interests would be a tall order. But once she was called to the bar, in 2014, she nonetheless decided to pursue that dream. Without a job, she moved to Toronto and met with environmental lawyers over coffee as often as possible.
The plan worked. That same year, Vittal secured a three-month contract at Eric K. Gillespie Professional Corporation, a small law firm that operates in a range of practice areas, including administrative, municipal and environmental law. At the end of that contract, she joined the firm as a permanent associate. In 2016, she noticed a job posting at Greenpeace Canada. The non-profit was looking for an in-house legal counsel. “I jumped at the opportunity,” she recalls. She applied and landed the position.
Popular culture tends to depict Greenpeace as a group of militant, self-righteous evangelists. “I think it’s the complete opposite,” says Vittal. “We see the importance of protecting the planet because we see beauty in it. We receive joy from it.”
Legal counsel, Greenpeace Canada
Year of call: 2014
Indeed, Vittal’s legal work doesn’t involve lambasting individuals for their behaviour. Her objective is far more ambitious: to hold governments and corporations accountable for actions that harm the climate and the natural world.
During her tenure at Greenpeace, for instance, Vittal has worked on a pair of legal actions against the government of Ontario. In 2018, alongside Ecojustice, she took the Doug Ford administration to court after it passed legislation that scrapped the province’s cap-and-trade program. “It not only undercut a successful program that was helping Ontario reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she says. “It also cancelled 227 clean-energy programs that would have benefited schools, hospitals, small businesses and public housing projects.”
In the end, the court dismissed the lawsuit. But the decision included one key finding: the government had failed to enter a period of public consultation before passing laws that affect the environment. “The court’s decision will not bring cap and trade back in Ontario,” says Vittal. But the court sent a strong message that elected officials don’t have “carte blanche to trample Ontarians’ environmental rights.”
In 2020, Vittal once again worked with Ecojustice in a case against Ontario’s COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act. This lawsuit argued that the omnibus bill slashed environmental regulations that had nothing to do with the pandemic. In particular, the province gave itself the power to override local governments and greenlight development projects that threaten wetlands and heritage sites. The court again censured the government for its lack of consultation with the public. Although the legislation itself survived — on the basis that the province did, eventually, seek comments from the public — the ruling adds to a growing body of caselaw that limits the powers of the state to degrade the environment.
To Farrah Khan, the deputy director of Greenpeace Canada, the world needs more lawyers like Vittal. “She uses her skills and expertise to lift up community needs in the face of inequitable power imbalances,” she says. “Priyanka brings to our team the smarts and commitment of a movement lawyer who uses the law as a mechanism for seeking and attaining justice at the community level.”
Currently, Vittal is on parental leave. In June 2021, she had her first child with her partner, refugee lawyer Joshua Blum. Looking ahead, she’s excited to return to work in August. One of her upcoming projects is an initiative to help people take legal action against fossil fuel companies for the consequences of climate change in their communities. “There is only so much we can do as individuals, and although we should each do our part, the responsibility also lies with the government and corporations to make change,” she says. “We should hold them accountable.”
Timeline of an environmental lawyer
2010: Vittal earns a bachelor of science, with a double major in physiology and psychology, from Western University.
2012: After her second year of law school, at the University of Ottawa, Vittal summers at a small environmental law firm in Ottawa. A large part of that role involves working on environmental-assessment law with MiningWatch Canada, a watchdog of the Canadian mining industry.
2013: Upon graduation from law school, she articles at McKenzie Lake Lawyers LLP, a full-service firm in her hometown of London, Ont.
2014: After her call to the bar, Vittal moves to Toronto and lands at a small law firm that handles files in practice areas ranging from administrative to municipal to environmental law. “I was thrown into the deep end very quickly,” she recalls. “It felt like a roller coaster: scary and thrilling at the same time.”
2016: Vittal joins Greenpeace Canada as legal counsel. “I didn’t really know the organization well,” she says, “but the more I read about them, the more excited I became.”
2019: In a blog post on the Greenpeace website, Vittal writes that “the City of Toronto should explore legal action against oil companies that could hold them financially responsible for the costs of the climate crisis they helped create.”
This story is from our Summer 2022 Issue.
Illustration by Salini Perera. Photo courtesy of Priyanka Vittal.