“Everything is Complex, But Everything has a Solution”: Remembering Meinhard Doelle
By: Martin Olszynski
Associate Professor, University of Calgary, Faculty of Law
It is the weekend before the Supreme Court of Canada’s hearing in Re: Impact Assessment Act and I am sitting at my dining room table, writing (and re-writing) my prepared remarks for the Court and thinking about my extraordinary colleague and dear friend Meinhard Doelle. For those who didn’t know him, Meinhard was a giant in the field of Canadian environmental law and policy, and in impact assessment law in particular. He was also tragically killed by a motor vehicle while cycling near his beloved cottage in Nova Scotia this past fall.
I’ve had a chance to share bits and pieces of what Meinhard meant to me already – on the tribute wall below his remarkable obituary, and during a subsequent online gathering of the Canadian environmental law community. But as I started to prepare for the IAA Reference hearing, my mind would invariably turn to Meinhard (as further set out below, the two are inextricably linked for me), and so I decided that this week’s hearing would be as good a time as any to share those thoughts all in one place.
I first met Meinhard eighteen years ago. I was a super keen law student at the University of Saskatchewan, volunteering at the inaugural conference of the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice (JELP). It was held in Saskatoon and, as it has sought to do ever since, brought together many of Canada’s environmental law scholars and practitioners to hash out their ideas for a more sustainable future (in fact, we’ll be meeting at the 9th JELP conference this summer, where we’ll be celebrating Meinhard’s contributions in person).
It was on the second day of that conference that I got to know of Meinhard, on a panel that, for those of us there, has surely grown in mythology. It was about the Kyoto Protocol, well after Canada’s signing but also well before its subsequent withdrawal. To the best of my recollection, Meinhard was there to help chart the path forward, but he was preceded by a colleague who had taken great issue with Kyoto – arguing that it was a badly flawed instrument. What followed was a fast-paced, intense, but ultimately ad hoc debate. While I don’t recall every remark and retort, I distinctly remember feeling awestruck at the breadth of knowledge on display, the speed of analysis, and Meinhard’s determination. Meinhard wasn’t naïve about Kyoto’s flaws, but he firmly believed in the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address what our Supreme Court has since recognized as a national and international collective action problem.
While in practice, I managed to stay connected to the JELP community, doing the odd peer-review from time to time. And in that context, I was able to keep up with some of Meinhard’s work, especially in the environmental assessment context. He wrote about the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2010 decision in Miningwatch Canada v. Canada (aka Red Chris), wherein the Court recognized federal authority to assess projects in their entirety rather than as scoped down by some regulators to match their regulatory authority. He then became a critical voice in opposition to the federal government’s 2012 omnibus budget bills, aka Bills C-38 and C-45, which introduced radically diminished federal environmental assessment legislation in the form of CEAA, 2012 (ultimately sparking outcry across the nation).
Around this time, Meinhard also served as a panel member for the Lower Churchill Hydro-Electric Project Review Panel, whose report I became intimately familiar with in the course of my work as a lawyer for DFO. It remains one of the most thoughtful panel reports ever written in Canada. Meinhard took that Lower Churchill experience and turned it into an article that he presented at the fourth JELP conference, at Reesor Ranch, SK. Shortly after Reesor, myself, Sharon Mascher and Meinhard assumed JELP’s editorial and conference-planning responsibilities.
In the decade that followed, Meinhard was not just a fixture of Canada’s environmental law community but, as one speaker put it at Meinhard’s celebration of life, a compass. Meinhard helped so many find their bearings.
That was and remains the case for me. I can’t turn around in my office without seeing Meinhard’s name or being reminded of him. From climate law and policy to impact assessment, Meinhard often drove the agenda, first amongst his peers and then in meetings with politicians and public servants. And when the IAA passed and many of us weren’t quite sure what to make of it (because, for example, it retained CEAA, 2012’s reduced scope), he geared up and drove efforts to keep improving it, including through the IAA book he co-edited, to which many in Canada’s environmental law and policy community were keen to contribute. He also served as a member of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada’s Technical Advisory Committee.
And if Meinhard were here, there is no doubt that he’d be helping a bunch of us prepare for this week’s hearing (as he did in the lead up to the Alberta Court of Appeal’s hearing). While it’s impossible for me to overstate how much I would appreciate hearing some of his words of wisdom right now, I remind myself that they’re actually all around me – in his books, articles, and emails (that he’d often sign off with a 🙂 ).
As captured so perfectly in his obituary, to Meinhard everything was complex, but everything had a solution. That actually sums up my submissions regarding the IAA pretty well too. And so I’ll keep learning from my extraordinary friend Meinhard, even as I miss him.