Deborah Curran—In the Spotlight

Practice Point

Deborah  Curran—In the Spotlight

September 2020

This month’s contributor spotlight is on Deborah Curran, Executive Director, Environmental Law Centre, UVIC. Deborah is a long-time volunteer for the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia.

How did you first get involved with CLEBC?

As an attendee at several municipal and real estate law CLEBC programs and then I chaired several CLEBC programs on public interest environmental law and green development/municipal approaches. More recently I have relied on CLEBC materials (the written papers) as course materials because in some areas like municipal and real estate law there are few BC-specific practice resources available on current issues.

What are you currently working on (or have most recently worked on) with CLEBC?

I am co-chairing with Terri-Lynn Williams Davidson, Government-to-Government Agreements & Implementation 2020 on Friday, September 25. (EDIT: This course has been postponed. TBD.)

What inspired you to specialize in municipal and environmental law?

I became aware of conflicts about the environment when I was 15 through a program in high school and selling calendars for the Wilderness Committee. One might say I have never strayed far from that awareness and pursued law as one way to help solve complex environmental governance problems.

Two notable moments were finding myself working at Tofino Sea Kayaking in the summer of 1993 when the Clayoquot Sound Protests were occurring, and defending the Yukon Government against Elvis Presley during my articling year. My interest in sustainability in general extended to the urban or municipal realm as some of the greatest consumer and land use impacts in ecologically sensitive areas are due to urbanization. The exercise of municipal jurisdiction is also just widely and personally interesting as it affects all aspects of our day-to-day life.

Apart from being an Associate Professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law, you are also the Executive Director of the Environmental Law Centre (ELC)? Can you tell us more about that?

The ELC is a non-profit organization that partners with the Faculty of Law to offer the environmental law clinic, the oldest environmentally-focused clinic in Canada (going on 25 years next year) and founded by students who wanted to receive course credit for working on environmental law cases. Our mission is to train the next generation of public interest environmental lawyers and to provide legal capacity to community organizations and First Nations in BC. In 2019 the 30+ students who take the Clinic each year provided over 4000 hours of pro bono services to community clients.

We provide support for all types of environmental law issues ranging through water quality, marine governance, mine waste permitting, regulation of flame retardants, Indigenous protected and conserved areas, and greenhouse gas emissions (see some of our recent projects here). My involvement with the ELC gives me the opportunity to link keen students who have lots of energy and skills with communities to provide them with legal resources to address current environmental concerns. I am always amazed at the quality of the work, the products we are able to deliver, and the impact we have in improving socio-ecological health in BC. We also know that the Clinic is providing effective legal training – in 2018 we conducted a survey of many years of past Clinic students, over 80% of whom agreed that the ELC helped them gain lawyering skills and that they use skills developed in the course in their legal practice.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have received?

It may be obvious in this era of attention to work-life balance and the Law Society’s focus on wellness in the legal profession, but the most valuable advice I received in law school and articling was to maintain balance between work and the rest of my life. I now understand that “balance” does not mean an equal balance all the time. Work will sometimes be busy, and at other times family and personal activities will take priority. The key is to ensure that work does not dominate long-term such that we lose our passion or care for what we are doing. I also now understand that law is usually a negative or risk-aversion pursuit in practice. We are trying to critique or pick holes in what others have done. This is a troubling orientation to maintain so we need to create those activities and spaces in our lives where we are not thinking about law or picking holes. A key part of maintaining balance for me has always been exercise, which mostly includes getting outside, and eating my greens, but more recently has included practices of mindfulness.

Other than law, what are you passionate about?

Given my professional interests, it will come as no surprise that I love being in the great outdoors in what we call beautiful British Columbia. My mom put me on my bike to head off to kindergarten in Vancouver (likely in a rain poncho as well) so I am a lifelong cycle commuter in my daily life and orient my vacations and exercise to being outdoors in natural places. This summer we paddled with orca, humpback whales, and bears in Namgis and Mamaliliculla territory.

In the past decade, I have become much more aware of the traditional territories in which I have the privilege to work or vacation, and part of my outdoor life is learning about what is important to the Indigenous communities in those territories. My work often introduces me to incredible places and people, particularly through the Field Course in Reconciliation, Ecology and Place-based Law I teach in the same community for five years, and I love sharing those experiences with my family.

Finally, Val Napoleon, Sarah Morales, and I have just finished a graphic novel on Indigenous and state water law. As a new type of teaching resource, I can’t wait to see how it will be picked up and used.